English R1A

Reading and Composition: Allegory and Experience in American Literature.

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
3 Spring 2021 Robinson, Jared
MWF 11-12


The century that spans 1820 to 1920 witnesses the formation of American literature as we know it. Just on the heels of the war of 1812, the America of this century takes its hard-fought independence and heads west to war with Mexico: revising its foundational ideals to admit its own colonialism, attempting to upend entire indigenous civilizations, and importing slave labor in its wake until the body count of its manifesting destiny soars into the millions. These among other “economic” pressures lead this fledgling nation finally into the self-annihilating massacre of the Civil War which, along with the failure of its subsequent reconstruction, results in some of the most horrifically quotidian spectacles of death this nation has ever known, before plunging it headlong again into a great war, World War I. This period of intense violence, migration, and societal reorganization was met and described at every point in equal measure by religious zealots and polyamorous socialists, “bad women” and “noble savages”, vindictive industrialists and their jealous slave drivers, transcendental idealists who wandered off into the woods where once lived the devil himself, and former slaves turned senators, to name just a few. It is the era of America’s hasty construction of its own myths and subsequent recasting of the present in its own image—a sprint from Renaissance to Modernism. Perhaps as a result of this, the literature of this century is in a tense and harried relation to the reality it describes, seeking as it does to participate in some meaningful way, either to promote reform or recalcitrance, and at every point to record the birth of the nation. In this class we will explore the literature of this period, beginning with Washington Irving’s Sketchbook and ending with Jean Toomer’s Cane, in an attempt to map two concomitant formulations: the American now and the American then. How does history become a myth? What does this mythology mean in the present? How can we hold a nation in our minds whose first principle is equal parts deception and dispersion? And ultimately, as these writers did, we will ask if language itself is a force that corrupts or redeems life.

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