Survey of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865

Section 01
John Evelev
Course Description

"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."  Walt Whitman (1855)


Early American literature gets a bad rap: the Puritans are boring, the writing of the 18th century is stiff and formal, and the Romantics are windbags! All untrue! One of the most popular books in Puritan America was Mary Rowlandson's narrative of her captivity by indigenous people during King Philip's War, in which she struggles to balance her racism with the possibility that she has more freedom as a captive of natives than as a wife of a Puritan minister.  Late 18th century American literature and culture was dominated by the prospect of revolution and all aspects of society were questioned: some of the earliest American fiction took the form of sensationalized "seduction novels," in which attitudes toward freedom (national, personal, moral, sexual, and political) were debated. Meanwhile, late 18th century print culture debated whether the US would be a secular or religious nation and what exactly it meant to be a "democratic" nation (debates we are still having today!).  The Romantic era was a time of tremendous cultural ferment, with political conflict over slavery that would culminate in the Civil War, and calls for reform.  Whether by forthright declarations (by writers such as Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman) or subtle and nuanced literary devices (from such authors as Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson), the literature of the Romantic era engaged with the calls for change that set the stage for a modern American literature and nation.

Required Work: Multiple short essays/projects in various modes (critical/analytic, personal/reflective, and creative), and 3 short answer exams.