In both overt and subtle ways, my work in a class focused very closely on American literature is
informed and strengthened by an American Studies perspective.
Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from this blog, I’m still (and happily) an English professor first and foremost, and as such I get to teach at least one upper-level literature course in most semesters. This semester that course is The American Novel to 1950, and my syllabus for it is, as is the case every time I teach an upper-level lit, most definitely focused on literary analysis: from the students’ weekly Blackboard posts on different elements of fiction (characterization, narration and perspective, imagery, and so on) to the assignment sequence (grounded in close reading, developing to analyses of a whole text and then of different genres of the novel in relationship to each other), and much else besides. Yet that literary focus doesn’t mean that the course isn’t influenced by my American Studies perspective, and here I’ll describe both an overt and a more subtle AMST presence in this classroom.
The most overt American Studies presence comes on the third day of the four that we spend discussing each novel. While I base these lit courses (like all my other courses) on student discussions as much as possible, I decided a couple years back that there was a place for a bit more in-depth lecturing, and that said place was on the third day: having given the students a chance to establish their takes over a couple days of discussions (including one based on extended Blackboard analyses), I can add in a few analytical frames and topics of my own, to help drive their second-week discussions and analyses. And those frames and topics are, in both their variety and my attempt to present their interconnections, entirely grounded in an American Studies approach. For Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, for example, I highlight and ask the students to analyze photographs of turn of the century New York, muckraking progressive exposes of sweatshops, pieces from the Jewish Daily Forward, and more; for Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, we look at early Western novels and films, Eastern European folk tales, and material culture artifacts from the frontier, among other sources. In each case, neither the interdisciplinary intertexts nor my own ideas are presented as “authoritative,” but rather as additional texts for the students to discuss and incorporate into their analyses.
There’s likewise a more subtle American Studies presence at work throughout the semester, though, and it comes through my chronology and choice of texts. It’s probably inevitable that a course on the novel through 1950 would be organized chronologically, but I’ll freely admit that a central goal in choosing the two novels to represent each genre (Romanticism, Realism, Modernism) is to represent at the same time core questions of American identity and community across these time periods. So my defining Romantic novel (Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables) is centrally concerned with how the American past defines our early republic existence and whether and how we can move beyond those histories; my central Realistic ones (Twain’s Adventures of Huck Finn, Chopin’s The Awakening, and Cahan’s novel) engage directly with the social conflicts and changes through which late 19th and early 20th century America evolved; and my Modernist ones (Cather’s novel and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury) directly and meta-textually question what role fiction and storytelling have in depicting modern American identities and lives. We don’t necessarily talk a lot about these undercurrents on a day to day basis in the class, but my hope is that by analyzing these novels, the students are also gaining a broader sense of how American perspectives and conversations evolved over the 19th and early 20th centuries.
That’s the plan, anyway! More American Studies influences in my courses tomorrow, as the first day of classes gets underway!
PS. Any interesting courses you’ve taken or taught and would highlight here?
1/17 Memory Day nominee: Ben Franklin, not because he wrote a relatively self-aggrandizing autobiography that helped launch the idealized “self-made man” narrative, nor because he gradually changed his mind on his xenophobic opposition to Germans in Pennsylvania (although he did indeed change), but because he was one of the first and remains one of the most impressive genuinely renaissance Americans, and one who (the Germans notwithstanding) modeled attitudes of tolerance and community that can and should inspire all Americans.