English 165

Special Topics: Family Histories from the Margins

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
4 Spring 2020 Wilson, Evan
TTh 3:30-5 54 Barrows

Book List

Ball, Edward: Slaves in the Family; Bronte, Emily: Wuthering Heights; Butler, Octavia: Kindred; Faulkner, William: Absalom, Absalom!; Hartman, Saidiya V.: Lose Your Mother; Morrison, Toni: Beloved

Other Readings and Media

A selection of articles and excerpts introducing the history and anthropology of the family, along with a smattering of genealogical articles


This seminar will explore the fraught status of families in literature and what it means to write about one’s own family. The family has generated a diverse range of literary and textual forms, from the list of “begats” in the book of Genesis to the family drama or epic that arcs across multiple generations. We’ll consider how families and their distinctive structures and problems call forth and shape narratives. As we’ll see, the discursive construction of a family depends on the social structures of class, wealth, race, and political power in which that family operates.

Each of our texts works in or from marginal spaces, including geographical margins (the Yorkshire moors), narrative margins, and the margins of the archive. A recurring theme of our readings is the problem of writing about families shaped, torn apart, or made archivally invisible by chattel slavery, which dictated that its subjects could be separated and exchanged at will—that they had no history and no public identity as members of families. Our novels and nonfiction texts may ultimately show how building a narrative can have an intimate connection to the act of finding, or claiming, a family of one’s own.

One of our goals will be to explore how our own senses of family shape the way we read and write. Accordingly, you will do some personal writing in addition to writing about our texts.

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