American Literature to 1914

American Literature Illustration

American Literature to 1914 is an area of particular strength within the MU English Department, with faculty covering the range from colonial America into the beginnings of modernism. The core faculty—John Evelev, Maureen Konkle, April Langley, Patricia Okker, and Alexandra Socarides—focus primarily on what could be called the long nineteenth century (from late 18th century through the first years of the 20th), with particular strengths in historical, textual studies, Native and African Diaspora literatures. While teaching primarily in other areas, Professors Aliki Barnstone (Creative Writing: Poetry, Dickinson), and David Read (colonial literature in England and America) provide additional expertise.

Fellowship and Teaching Opportunities
New PhD students in nineteenth-century American Literature are encouraged to apply for the John and Cynthia Shaw Fellowship in American Literature. This fellowship provides a one-time grant of $1,000 for an incoming PhD student in any area of American literature.

Students in our graduate program teach a variety of writing and literature courses, including first-year writing and Introduction to American literature, both of which provide graduate instructors with considerable flexibility in designing their own courses. In addition, PhD students in American Literature to 1914 will also be able to team teach, at least once, an American literature survey with one of the core faculty in this area. English 3300 covers American literature from the beginnings to the Civil War, and English 3310 covers American literature from the Civil War to the present. Students will learn how to build a syllabus, write paper assignments and exams, lecture and lead discussion in a sophomore/junior-level survey course.

Library Holdings
MU Libraries have some notable strengths in the area of nineteenth-century American literature, including particularly strong holdings in nineteenth-century periodicals. The Western Historical Manuscript Collection and the State Historical Society of Missouri, both of which are on campus, provide additional opportunities for archival work. In addition, the library has a number of databases essential to the study of nineteenth-century American literature, including American Periodicals Series Online, Illustrated Civil War Newspapers and Magazines, Historical Newspapers, C19: The Nineteenth Century Index, Early American Imprint Series I and II, North American Women's Letters and Diaries, and American Civil War: Letters and Diaries.

Recent Undergraduate Courses

City and Country in American Romanticism (4310)

Taught by John Evelev

The antebellum era (roughly 1830-60) was a period of staggering population growth and developmental expansion in the United States.  As a result, the dominant movement of the arts in the period, romanticism, was particularly involved in understanding the nature of American spaces or environments, most notably the city and the country (itself a divide that was particularly formalized during this period). The urban population of the United States grew over 90% during this period.  Perhaps as a result, American literature and painting began to pay increased attention to the now seemingly threatened landscape, producing paintings, poetry and travelogues that paid homage to the beauty and symbolic importance of the country landscape.  Romantic writers also explored the promise and threat of the expanding city, a place of crowds and vice, trade and freedom. This course will read a range of works from this period, from classic texts such as Thoreau's Walden and Whitman's "Song of Myself," to Poe's sensational stories and popular melodramas of of urban life, stories about utopian communes where people sought to recreate an idealized agrarian lifestyle, and the debates around the creation and design of New York City's Central Park, one of the seminal city-country hybrid spaces of the period.

Required work: multiple short papers and one longer revised research paper.

Deep Reading Walden (4310)

taught by Alexandra Socarides

This course takes up Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in order to explore a variety of approaches to the field of literary studies. We will, first and foremost, read Walden slowly, deeply, and carefully. Additionally, we will identify three different frameworks for reading by paying close attention to: the particular strategies and approaches used by the author; the things that form part of the text’s historical and cultural context; and the later texts that are influenced by the original. Along the way we will read and discuss selected texts by other nineteenth-century writers, including Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and James Fenimore Cooper, and by twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers, including Jon Krakauer, Barbara Kingsolver, Cheryl Strayed, and Ken Ilgunas.

Major Authors: Henry James (4168)

taught by Alexandra Socarides

This course will provide utter immersion in one of the most prolific, beautiful, and challenging writers of the late nineteenth century: Henry James. We will read a diverse selection of his short and long prose, including “Daisy Miller” (1878), Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), “The Aspern Papers” (1888), “The Lesson of the Master” (1892), “The Real Thing” (1892), What Maisie Knew (1897), “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), and The Wings of the Dove (1902). We will concern ourselves with a variety of tasks, including reading James’ sentences closely, discussing the development of his style and subjects over time, and thinking about his place in literary history. Student will write a series of short papers in order to develop their close reading and research skills.

Realism and Naturalism in America (4310)

taught by John Evelev

This course seeks to explore the wide-ranging literary expressions of American realism in the period from the end of the Civil War through the early years of the twentieth century.  Reading the literary works in context and through the lenses of the social and cultural concerns that shaped American life during the period, the course will focus on a series of different units: “In the Aftermath: Understanding the Civil War,” “Regionalism: American Places & People,” “American Nervousness,” “Technology and Work,” “City Life,” and “New Imperial Adventures.”

Authors to be studied include: Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Orne Jewett, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Charles Chesnutt, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James (and many others).  

Recent Graduate Seminars

American Literature and the Archive

taught by Alexandra Socarides

This graduate seminar represents my attempt to think with graduate students about what an archive is, about how one might navigate such a space, and about why the archive (both as a place and as a concept) might be important to literary critics and creative writers. This seminar, then, will entail a variety of approaches, activities, and assignments – all experiments that will lead each student into a new project or deeper into an already-existing one. Although we will take some of our cues from how nineteenth-century American literature (and the study of it) has been informed by the very notion of the archive, students from all areas of study are invited to take this course, as its investigations will be applicable across fields.

Antebellum American Poetry

taught by Alexandra Socarides

In this seminar we will study closely the poetry that was written in America in the decades before the Civil War. Before Whitman and Dickinson, before the turn from sentimental to experimental, before, we might even say, the birth of the American “lyric,” there was a now-largely eclipsed yet nonetheless thriving world in which poetry was made, circulated, published, theorized, and read. In order to recover that antebellum poetic culture, we will (as much as possible) reject the twenty- and twenty-first century compilations of this writing in favor of what actual nineteenth-century readers would have known: poetry as it appeared in pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, gift books, annuals, anthologies, and the single-author collection. While this course will survey a diversity of poets writing in this period and will stress the transatlantic contexts in which that poetry appeared, we will linger on certain writers, including Longfellow, Sigourney, Bryant, Emerson, Osgood, Poe, and Oakes-Smith. The course will largely be driven by questions about the dynamic emergence of American women’s poetry during these decades, about the diversity of poetic genres that circulated widely at the time, and about how one might reconstruct American literary history with an eye (and an ear) to antebellum poetry. Assignments will include short close reading papers and archival projects, a presentation with annotated bibliography, and a seminar paper. This course is designed to be useful to students with an interest in the history of poetry, nineteenth-century literature, and/or women’s writing.

Emily Dickinson

taught by Alexandra Socarides

In this seminar we will study the poems of Emily Dickinson from a variety of angles, at each turn asking how they were constructed by Dickinson herself, by nineteenth-century culture, by her later editors, and by the history of criticism. This seminar will move (at times jarringly and dramatically) between issues of content and form at the most local level (that of the poem’s words and punctuation) to the larger theoretical questions concerning print culture, gender and sexuality, lyric media, and textual/editorial practices that a close engagement with Dickinson’s work necessarily raises. Students will write weekly response papers on individual poems and a final seminar paper. No prior knowledge of Dickinson or nineteenth-century American poetry is required.

Because this course focuses solely on the work of a nineteenth-century woman, and because our approach to that work will be undergirded by an interest in the historical terms of production and reception as they existed for a woman of Dickinson’s race, class, and region, this course will be cross-listed with Women & Gender Studies. Not only do Dickinson’s poems highlight for her later readers a cluster of issues that were central to the experiences of nineteenth-century women – sexuality, friendship, work (both domestic and literary), family, violence, female education – but the critical history of reading Dickinson has attended to these issues with theoretical rigor. By studying both Dickinson’s approach to such subjects within her poetry and to the history of interpretations of this poetry, we will interrogate the relationship between gender and poetics.

The American Novel to 1900 (8310)

taught by John Evelev

This course seeks to cover the literary history of the American novel to 1900 without simply being a straight narrative history. In an attempt to offer both a wide range of texts and the kind of focus that allows students to develop some authority on subject matter, this course approaches the early history of the American novel through two main clusters.  The first half of the course will engage with the prehistory and early history of the American novel through the lens of the Gothic, asking why the concerns of the Gothic were so central to early American attempts to represent self and considering a range of canonical and non-canonical Romantic works that used the gothic in their depiction of American life.

Possible texts to be studied in this section of the course include: Mary Rowlandson’s Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682), Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), Robert Montgomery Bird, Sheppard Lee (1836), Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables (1851), Herman Melville, Pierre; or the Ambiguities (1852), Hannah Crafts, The Bondswoman’s Narrative (approx. 1853-60)

The second half of the course will frame the post-Civil War American novel through its concerns with materiality and place, considering how the literature of Realism focused on the importance of geography and material possessions to represent self and nation. 

Possible texts to be studied in this section of the course include: Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton (1897), Charles Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), and Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900).

Required Work: Presentation, Short Response Papers, Abstracts and a Conference Paper.


Professor, Poet Laureate of Missouri 2016-2019
320 Tate Hall
323 Tate Hall
Professor of English
209 Tate Hall
Associate Professor
221 Tate Hall
Professor and Miller Family Endowed Chair of Writing
008 Tate Hall