"’The Vanishing American’ in American Literature" Syllabus

Last year, I wrote a post on the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog about William Apess and Daniel Webster. The post examines Apess’s and Webster’s views in regards to the date commemorating the Pilgrim’s arrival at Plymouth Rock (December 22). Today, I want to take the time to share with you a syllabus I constructed for an Early American Literature class. Entitled “The Vanishing American in American Literature,” the course examines the representation of Native Americans in texts as divergent as Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative to Albery Allson Whitman’s epic in Spenserian stanzas on the Seminole Wars. Let me know, in the comments below, what texts you may add to this syllabus and why. 

English 449: The “Vanishing American” in American Literature
Course Description:
This course will study the trope of the “Vanishing American” in eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century American literature. According to Brian W. Dippie, the “Vanishing American” myth arose from the wide held belief that Native Americans would either assimilate into white society or vanish into the frontier. People in nineteenth-century America also believed that Native Americans who came in contact with white, “civilized” society took on the vices but not the virtues of that society; “[t]o survive, the noble savage must remain uncontaminated by contact with the white race” (Dippie 25). All of the texts in this course will explore the myth of the “Vanishing American” and how it impacted American literature during its formative state in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when calls for an “American” literature echoed throughout the country. In the course, we will examine various texts that either perpetuate the myth or work to counter it. Along with this, the course will explore how the myth influenced Native American policy, specifically the Indian Removal Act. 
  • Mary Rowlandson The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson
  • Samson Occom A Short Narrative of My Life
  • Charles Brockden Brown Edgar Huntly: or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker
  • James Fenimore Cooper The Pioneers: or, The Sources of the Susquehanna
  • Lydia Maria Child Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times
  • Catharine Maria Sedgwick Hope Leslie
  • Elias Boudinot Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot. Ed. Theda Perdue
  • William Apess On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Ed. Barry O’Connell
  • Washington Irving A Tour of the Prairies
  • Staging the Nation: Plays from the American Theater, 1787-1909. Ed. Don B. Wilmeth
  • Albery Allson Whitman The Rape of Florida
Course Requirements:
  1. In this seminar, regular and substantive class participation is required. A seminar is a place for collaboration and discussion on the assigned readings and scholarly texts. Come to class prepared to ask questions and discuss topics that spark debate.
  2. Each graduate student will be required to lead class discussion for one day during the semester. The purpose of this is to provide you with pedagogical practice in leading class discussions. You will have 30-45 to lead the class on your assigned day, and you may use handouts, articles, media, or any other pedagogical tool to aid in the discussion of the day’s reading. You will be graded on: Organization, Originality, Relevance to the week’s reading(s), and Oral delivery.    
  3. Occasionally, there will be short (one to two page) written responses. The responses should follow MLA format and should focus on a specific concept or passage from the assigned reading(s).
  4. At the end of the semester, there will be a 10-12 page research paper due. The paper will be this length because I want you to submit the paper to a conference for presentation. With that in mind, you will be required to submit an appropriate CFP along with the research paper.
  5. The final exam will occur during finals week. It will consist of identifications, short responses, and a long essay.
  • Class Discussion Day and Participation          20%
  • Short Response Papers                                    20%
  • Conference Paper                                            25%
  • Final Exam                                                      30%
1 T
No Class
1 TR
Class introduction, review syllabus, historical background
2 T
Mary Rowlandson The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson
2 TR
Continue Mary Rowlandson
3 T
Samson Occom A Short Narrative of My Life
3 TR
Charles Brockden Brown Edgar Huntly: or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker
4 T
Continue Brockden Brown
4 TR
Washington Irving “Philip of Pokanoket” and “Traits of Indian Character”
5 T
James Fenimore Cooper The Pioneers: or, The Sources of the Susquehanna
5 TR
Continue James Fenimore Cooper
6 T
Continue James Fenimore Cooper
6 TR
Lydia Maria Child Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times
7 T
Continue Lydia Maria Child
7 TR
Catharine Maria Sedgwick Hope Leslie
8 T
Mardi Gras Holiday
8 TR
Continue Catharine Maria Sedgwick
9 T
Continue Catharine Maria Sedgwick
9 TR
Elias Boudinot selections
10 T
Continue Elias Boudinot
10 TR
Continue Elias Boudinot
11 T
John Augustus Stone Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags
11 TR
Continue John Augustus Stone
12 T
John Brougham Metamora; or, The Last of the Pollywogs. A burlesque in two acts.
12 TR
William Apess a Son of the Forest
13 T
William Apess Eulogy on King Philip
13 TR
Continue William Apess
14 T
Washington Irving A Tour of the Prairies
14 TR
Continue Washington Irving
15 T
Easter/Spring Break
15 TR
Easter/Spring Break
16 T
Lydia Maria Child “Willie Wharton” and An Appeal in Favor of Indians
16 TR
Continue Lydia Maria Child
17 T
Albery Allson Whitman Twasinta’s Seminoles; or, Rape of Florida
17 TR
Continue Albery Allson Whitman

Mark Twain’s "The War Prayer" & #JeSuisParis

#prayfortheworld, Leemarej, ink on paper, 2015

Scrolling through my Facebook feed a couple of days after the events in Paris, I came across a post that referenced Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer.”  Twain’s story, published posthumously in 1923, takes place in an unnamed country preparing for war. Community members, filled with patriotism, gathered at the local church before the soldiers (volunteers) departed for the front. The volunteers stood ready to encounter the enemy and return home “bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory!” Alongside the volunteers, the townspeople sat in fevered excitement for those from the community that will go and serve. Those who did not have children to send even envied those who had sons to send forth into battle. 

After a reading on war from the Old Testament, a prayer, and a song, the “long” prayer grasped the congregation. The supplicant prayed “that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.” The prayer grabs a hold of the congregation, and the patriotism reaches a fevered pitch. 

Following the “patriotic” exhortation, a stranger, claiming to be a messenger from God, walks and stands beside the preacher. At the conclusion of the prayer, the stranger addressed the crowd, telling them the unconscious aspects of their “patriotic” prayer to God. He tells them that instead of seeking benevolence, they actually seek pain and destruction for their unnamed enemies. He says, 

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it–for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!    

The messenger informs those gathered to pray for victory that what they ask, when pleading for a win, entails much more than having their men return home. In war, someone has to lose, and that loss can be devastating. The messenger’s words make it abundantly clear that victory comes at cost of lives, homes, grief, pain, suffering, and travail. When I read this, I could not help but think about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Fanatics (1901), a novel that tells the story of fanaticism and “patriotism” at the outset of the Civil War. It focuses on two white families, one southern and one northern. The war separates these one time friends from another based on regional differences. The relationship they gained before the war gets torn asunder, and both families suffer.   

Along with this novel, I thought about the Puritans, a group of people who fled religious persecution and made their way to America. This group came here to become, as Jonathan Winthrop stated, “A City on a Hill,” one that would show England and Europe how a Christian society should exists. However, during their interactions with the Native Americans, and others, their “Christian” values started to mirror those of the town in Twain’s story. One such instance stands out from this period: King Philip’s War. During the war, the colonists prayed for Philip’s demise. When they caught him, they drug the “doleful, great, naked, dirty beast” from the “mire” and had him drawn and quartered (Church). The colonists became concerned about the divine providence of God’s hand on their venture that some, like Increase Mather, even saw the war with Philip as a showdown between good and evil (light and dark). 

I bring all of this up to show that people’s thoughts in regards to what has happened are nothing new. However, we should strongly consider whether or not we should continue to hold these same ideas when it comes to topics like refugees and our myopic focus on western tragedies instead of widening the lenses to see the entirety of humanity as the image above suggests. Of course, much of this has to do with religious belief and rhetoric as well. With that in mind, I want you to think about a song that has always caught my attention, Glassjaw’s “Radio Cambodia” (video below). Glassjaw’s song sums up, as succinctly as Twain does, the hidden messages when we pray for success on the fields of battle.       

I want to conclude this entry with an extended quote from the post I mention earlier. The poster passionately sums up the discussion above and expresses some of my own feelings on the events that have occurred over the past two weeks. She writes,   

I see nothing wrong with the hash tag ‪#‎PrayForParis‬ – as long as we’re willing to acknowledge the multitude of ways individual prayer may manifest – or any other show of solidarity. At moments of feeling wholly impotent, any gesture grand or small that reminds us of our connected humanity should be welcomed. But I’m dubious of our cause when the victims of the evil we are so vocal in condemning seek refuge and so many of our own are equally vocal in turning them away. When those who put forth prayers for peace and safety treat the victims of spoken and silent prayers, those who quite literally suffered a long pilgrimage with heavy steps and tears and blood, as a scourge. How can we shake our fist and call for a necessary end to Sharia law, then mask our own xenophobia and intolerance in religiosity? How can we proudly tout American exceptionalism across the globe, and then prove to be so decidedly unexceptional at offering sanctuary? How do we engrave “The New Colossus” on one of our most iconic immigrant landmarks, inviting in “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and then simply dismiss those who are indeed part of the huddled masses?

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.  

Note: The person who posted the piece on Facebook has give me permission to share excerpts from it here. 

Bloomingdale’s and the Visual Analysis Essay

When teaching composition, one of my favorite assignments has always been the visual analysis essay. This semester, students must choose one or two advertisements and analyze them, looking at audience, context, message, format, and other items. As usual, reality outside of the classroom always has a way of seeping in to the discussions, even in a composition course.

Bloomingdale’s Holiday Catalog Page

Last week, Bloomingdale’s came under fire for a page in their holiday catalog. The picture, which appears innocuous enough, shows a woman on the left hand side of the page. Tilting her head to the side, her face contains a smile as she laughs, presumably at a party. On the right hand side of the image, a man stands, semi-profile, and glances at the woman. Alone, these two individuals would not look like anything more than two people possibly enjoying a gathering; however, the text that alights itself between the two people causes the image to take on a whole other meaning. The text reads, “Spike your BEST FRIEND’S eggnog when they’re not looking.” (The bold is in the catalog.) These words make the man on the right look like a villainous seducer who will do whatever it takes to get the woman on the left into bed. Obviously, the image, and mainly the text, perpetuates an image of women as objects for nothing more than the gratification of men, all the while promoting a rape culture. Other sites have posted extended discussions of this topic: The Washington Post, Fortune, Tech Insider, and other outlets.

Discussing this image in class, I asked students to describe the individuals in the picture and the setting. Most agreed that the people appear to be at a holiday party, a wedding, or some other social gathering. They described the woman as boisterous and having a good time. When it came to the man, however, they said he looks “creepy.” I tried to get them to think about the image without the words in between the man and woman; however, that proved to be difficult. If the words were not there, would the man look “creepy”? I argue that he wouldn’t because the ad would then just be another page in a catalog, no other context. except for his positioning in relation to the woman, would lead to that assumption. Students had a hard time seeing this, and this only helps to reinforce to them that words, even in an seemingly innocent advertisement, mean a lot.

Along with this introductory discussion, I found it fruitful to walk students through Danielle Paquette’s Washington Post article. The article begins with a discussion of the image, describing the people then the text. Paquette then relays the outrage over the ad. After this, she maneuvers into a broader discussion of what the ad says on a cultural level. To do this, she interviews Sarah Murnen, a psychology professor at Kenyon University. Murnen speaks about using the ad in her gender studies class and Paquette expands what Murnen says to show how the ad relates to the broader topic of date rape on college campuses. Paquette then proceeds to Jean Kilbourne and the topic of women in corporate America. Walking students through this structure shows them that all of these topics arose out of an idea that initially seems innocuous until the words pop out of the page.    

Relating to the Bloomingdale’s ad, I want to take a second to look back at an advertisement that has always stuck with me when I assign the visual analysis essay. The Candie’s advertisement (which is actually two) from 2000 highlights perfectly the idea of audience for students. Both ads show a man and woman embracing on a bathroom sink. Obviously, it appears that the two will engage in sex. Unlike the Bloomingdale’s ad, this one appears consensual. The consensual nature of the ad is not the topic that I discuss with students though. Instead, I point out that the image on the left appeared in magazines like Seventeen, and the one on the right appeared in Cosmopolitan.

There are, essentially, only two differences between these images. The one on the right has condoms on the counter and the woman’s leg pulls the man’s towel down, exposing his butt crack. These two changes make the image on the right more risque, and one can easily understand why it appeared in a magazine like Cosmopolitan rather than Seventeen. Students pick up on the differences in audiences pretty quickly, so showing them these two images provides a great opportunity to highlight how audience plays a role in reception.

While there are apparent aspects of the images and audience that students pick up on, I noticed that they do not pick up on another aspect that warrants some discussion. As I state earlier, both images show a couple that, it could be assumed, will engage in sexual activity soon. If the ad on the left appears in Seventeen, would it be appropriate to show the condoms on the counter? I ask this because the question of will they or won’t they does not seem relevant here. What does seem relevant is what message the ad conveys in regards to sex. With the image on the left, practicing safe sex does not appear. No protection appears. One could also argue the same thing with the image on the right because the condoms do not look used. No package is opened. However, we could assume they will use the condom once the act commences. For me, the question of why the condoms do not show up in the Seventeen ad proved fruitful. It made students think about the message that the ad would or would not convey with the condoms present or absent. It also made them think about the reception of the ad to that specific audience and parents.

What are some memorable advertisements you have come across? Let me know in the comments below.