Tuesday, December 10, 2013
December 10, 2013: Semester Recaps: Early American Lit
[Wednesday is my last day of classes, so all week I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies takeaways from the Fall 2013 semester. Add your thoughts and fall recaps in comments, please!]
On a pairing that embodies the best kind of literary and historical revisionism.
On the first day of my American Literature I course, one of the two classes (alongside, wait for it, American Literature II) that I’ve taught most frequently in my 8.5 years at Fitchburg State, I connect the course’s syllabus and goals to a particular kind of revisionism. In each of the course’s four units/time periods, we start with a week of texts and figures that are often included in what I call The Story of America (the Pilgrims/Puritans, the Founding Fathers, etc.), and then add in two more weeks of texts and figures who help us think about other American Stories (Native Americans and other European arrivals, women and African Americans during the Revolutionary era, etc.). The goal, I try to make clear on that first day, isn’t revisionism as competition or replacement (let’s get rid of the emphasis on these dead white men, that sort of thing), but rather as addition and combination—thinking about how reading and engaging with all of these texts and figures helps us genuinely re-vise, see anew, each era and American history, culture, and identity through them.
So that’s my vision for the course overall—but of course what it means in practice is always mostly and happily determined by the students and their thoughts, individually and collectively, on particular authors, on the units, and on the class’s conversations and work throughout. In the course’s second paper, the students have to put any two of our texts in conversation with each other, developing a central topic and thesis out of their ideas about that pairing, and the results often embody particularly unique and interesting ways to connect across the units and syllabus. This semester that meant, among many other great Paper 2 pairings: poems on faith, community, and identity by Anne Bradstreet and William Cullen Bryant; folk stories and myths put to historical uses by Chief Pontiac and Washington Irving; persuasive arguments developed by Tom Paine and Judith Sargent Murray; and, in the evocative pairing on which I’ll focus for my final paragraph in this post, the captivity stories of Mary Rowlandson and Phillis Wheatley.
The student’s paper focused in particular on an interesting, two-part way to pair Rowlandson and Wheatley: that both are writing about their experiences as captives (Rowlandson in a narrative of her time with the Wampanoag tribe during King Philip’s War; Wheatley in a poem about her experiences of the Middle Passage and slavery); and that both use religious allusions and arguments to reframe those experiences in a surprising way for their audiences. But the pairing and paper also included—thanks to my response to those starting points and the student’s strong subsequent work—an even more complex topic: how each figure evolved as a result of her cross-cultural encounters, and how those evolutions are reflected in their voices and choices as writers. The result, again reflects the best kind of revisionism, one that doesn’t privilege any particular culture or history or text or figure, but instead forces us to think anew about captivity and community, identity and faith, and about the American histories and literatures that portray, engage with, and help create those ideas and images.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall classes, work, or other happenings you’d recap?