Getting Students Excited about Early American Literature?

While thinking about the upcoming school year, I couldn’t help but think about ways to introduce students in my Early American Literature survey course to the importance of the texts that they will be reading. Students have a sense that these texts, and any text they read, is important; however, this realization typically comes from the thought that since it’s being taught at a university and included in a course it is, for some reason, more important that other texts, the high versus low art quandary. What they typically don’t think about, though, is how much the culture they partake in has been influenced and draws upon literature, in this case specifically Early American Literature (pre-1865). On the first day of class, I am planning to introduce students to the ways that the authors we will read this semester permeate their everyday lives without them even knowing it.

These references can be anything from adaptations of literary works to allusions and references in songs, films, comics, video games, etc. I have written about this before in relation to the use of video game cinematics in class and in relation to employing Sho Baraka’s “Jim Crow” to highlight the interplay between literature, music, and other cultural forms. Today, I want to briefly highlight some examples of pre-1865 American literature that permeates our cultural products. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I would love for you to provide more examples in the comments below. Perhaps we can start a list for other teachers to use in their own classrooms.

During the inaugural “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons in 1990, Lisa recites Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” to Bart while their father Homer listens outside of the treehouse, getting scared as the poem progresses. Typically, this is the initial reference I show to students because unlike Vincent Price’s adaptations of Poe’s works, they can easily draw a connection with The Simpsons because of its continued presence on the cultural landscape. Likewise, Futurama‘s “Möbius Dick” from 2011 is a direct reference to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Even though there are other takes on the Ahab-White Whale story, this one falls in line with The Simpsons because of the cultural significance of the shows. On the first day of class, I would show The Simpsons‘ adaptation of Poe’s famous poem, possibly last because most students will have at least heard of Poe whether or not they have read anything by him or not.

In 2009, Levis launched an ad campaign that used Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” And Whitman himself reading “America” in two separate television spots. These spots are short enough to show in class, and on the first day, they are worth showing to point out to students that even though, like Poe, they may not have ever read anything by Walt Whitman, they have had exposure to his work through popular culture. Along with this introduction, it would also be worthwhile to ask students how the poems, which could be looked at in class, translate to the advertisement for Levis in the early part of the twenty first century even though they were both written in the latter part of the nineteenth.

Continuing with Whitman and Melville, lead singer Aaron Weiss from the band mewithoutYou draws inspiration from numerous philosophers and writers. On Ten Stories (2012), an album that tells the story of a circus train crash in late nineteenth century Montana, Weiss includes a “Lyrical acknowledgements” section in the liner notes where he mentions Whitman, William Blake, St. Teresa of Avila, Melville, W.B. Yeats, John Keats, and Hegel. The easiest, and shortest, example to show students on the first day would be Weiss’s use of Whitman from the song “February, 1878,” which provides the narrative opening to the album. After the wreck, and as the animals start to escape, Weiss sings, “Cast thoughts into the open ocean of air until your thread catch somewhere” Drawing from Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” a poem that sees the narrator watching a spider and contemplating the meaning of life, Weiss alludes to the second stanza do Whitman’s poem:

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

The animals in “February, 1878” do not know where they are going, and some even choose to remain in bondage on the circus train, even after the wreck. Like Whitman’s poem, Weiss’s lyrics question one’s role in the universe. In class, students can read Whitman’s poem them listen to mewithoutYou’s song, exploring how they are in conversation with one another across almost one hundred and fifty years.

There are other examples that I could provide, and I will add a couple of more to the list in my next post. Mae sure to come back next Tuesday, August 16, to see other examples of early-American literature in our cultural landscape and how those examples can be used to get students interested in reading texts from the nineteenth century and earlier. As usual, if you have any comments, make sure to leave them below.

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