Thursday, January 14, 2016
January 14, 2016: Spring 2016 Previews: American Literature I
[Next week brings a new semester, the last of my 11th year at Fitchburg State University. So this week brings a series of spring 2016 preview posts, this time focused on the texts we’ll be reading in my spring courses. I’d love to hear about your spring syllabi, and other spring plans, in comments!]
Unlike the other courses about which I’ve written this week, in my American Lit I class we don’t have any long readings—each day we focus on at least one new author and text, and usually at least a couple. There’s just too much literature, history, and culture to cover in the hundreds of years of American history pre-1865 for me to feel that we can spend multiple days on a single author or text (despite the many very challenging and worthy ones across that period). So today I’ll highlight instead the four units across which this course moves, and two examples of authors (one expected and one more surprising) with whom we engage in each:
1) Exploration/Arrival/Contact: Christopher Columbus is one of the couple most famous figures whom we read in Am Lit I, but I’m willing to bet that most students haven’t had a chance to read either his first voyage letter to Luis de Santangel or his fourth voyage one to Ferdinand and Isabella. Those two letters are striking enough on their own terms, but they become even more interesting when paired with excerpts from Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative. I make sure to include Native American voices (among many other communities and cultures) in this opening unit as well, but Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca alone are more than enough to shake up any preconceptions we might have about the era.
2) The Revolution: You can’t teach a unit on the literature of the Revolutionary era and not read Tom Paine—and luckily (and saliently), Paine’s writing and voice in both Common Sense and The Crisis are so unique and compelling that they reward our attention. His persuasive arguments become even more interesting when we pair them with the persuasive, revolutionary arguments deployed by Annis Stockton and Judith Sargent Murray in service of the fledgling women’s movement. These and other writers and texts help us understand the many layers of this period’s revolutionary trends.
3) The Early Republic: If there’s a more fun American short story than Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” I haven’t found it; and from its found footage preface and historical opening to its supernatural and political twists, the story is also full of complex elements that tell us a great deal about America in its post-Revolution infancy. At the other end of the genre spectrum is William Apess’s blunt, impassioned, and unforgettable essay “An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man,” a work every American should read. American literature and society were both changing in striking and significant ways in the Early Republic, as these and other works amply illustrate.
4) The American Renaissance: Every semester, when we get to our final unit, I worry that students will find Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” simply unreadable; and yet every semester I find instead that the Transcendental origin point speaks to at least a couple students who hadn’t been excited by any prior readings. On the other hand, I never worry for a second that our selected columns by Fanny Fern will make for anything other than enjoyable reading; but Fern is also the kind of writer who reveals new depths every time I teach and read her, so I’m just as excited to return to her as I am to share her with a new class. All fun ways to wrap up what will be my 11th year teaching at least one section of Am Lit I!
Last spring preview tomorrow,
PS. What are you teaching/reading this spring? Other spring plans you’d share?