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.
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.
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.