Early American Literature Survey Syllabus

Note: Here is the syllabus I am discussing.

This semester, I’m teaching an Early American Literature survey course (through 1865). Typically, I have approached this course chronologically, having students read Native American creation stories, Christopher Columbus, William Bradford, and so on, in that order until we reached Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. However, this semester, I am trying something different. Instead of assigning students a set of readings that follow a specific sequential pattern, I am organizing the readings around paired themes and questions.  This approach is nothing new, I know, but this semester marks the first time I am personally constructing a survey course.

Today, I want to share with you my syllabus and discuss how I foresee this shift in organization possibly affecting the way that students read and approach the assigned texts over the course of the semester. Over the course of the semester, I want students to interrogate specific ideas and “myths” about our nation.

  • Is there such a thing as the American Dream?
  • What does “All men are created equal” actually mean?
  • What authors should be included in the canon when we look at Early American literature?
  • How are these texts still relevant today in our current cultural milieu?
  • How are these authors in conversation with one another?

For me, the last question is the most important, especially when thinking about how I teach students in my composition classes. There, I center the class around writing and reading as a conversation that involves more than just the student sitting idly by him or herself putting words down on paper or reading them from a page. Having students grasp this concept, in composition or literature classes, will open their eyes to the other questions, and more, mentioned above. With the idea of literature, and writing, as an ongoing conversation, I want to share with you how I chose to organize the readings. I’m not going to go through all of them here, but if you would like to see the full reading list, you can check out the syllabus here.

PicMonkey Collage

David Walker                                                                  Thomas Jefferson 

Rather than starting with Columbus, I decided to have students begin the semester by reading an excerpt from David Walker’s Appeal (1829-1830). I chose this text for a couple of reasons, but first and foremost, Walker’s pamphlet highlights reading and writing as a conversation because in the excerpt students read Walker interrogates Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on race, specifically quoting the Founding Father. (I’ll expand upon this in the next post.) Walker’s Appeal, as such, argues about who can be considered American, a topic that Jefferson and others discuss in writings from the Revolutionary period onward.

After Walker, students will read Jefferson’s texts to see what, and why, Walker challenges the third president. As well, they will read excerpts from  J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), a book that gives us the image of America as a “melting pot.” By having students read these texts after Walker, they will see the cultural milieu that Walker encountered and why he constructed his arguments the way he did. Ultimately, my goal is to get students to question the narratives they have been taught so far, and by starting the semester off with a black nationalist text, I hope to decenter them and have them think about these issues from the viewpoint of someone like Walker. Following these readings, students will look at Samson Occom and William Apess before delving into texts by Columbus and Mary Rowlandson. Again, the thought process here is to have students look at the way Native Americans responded to writings then to see what those writings were.

As the course progresses, I have paired texts more along the lines of themes, race, gender, and class. For example, Harriet Jacobs immediately follows Rowlandson’s narrative. I do this to show students that Rowlandson’s and Jacobs’s texts can both be read as “captivity narratives,” albeit in different contexts. They can also both be examined in the experiences that women, white and black endured, and the differences in those experiences. Jacobs’s “slave narrative” leads us into “travel narratives” and “conversion narratives” such as Sarah Kemble Knight, Olaudah Equiano, and John Marrant. Each of these narratives overlap in regards to theme and convention.

Through this construction, students will see that we cannot place texts into neat little prepackaged boxes such as the “slave narrative,” “captivity narrative,” “travel narrative,” or “conversion narrative.” Instead, these narratives overlap and flow into one another creating a malleable interweaving of textual conventions that highlights, rather directly or indirectly, a literary conversation. The rest of the semester plays this out throughout different centuries, pairing Anne Bradstreet with Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley with Frances Ellen Watkins Harper for example.

I do not present the five authors of F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941) until the end of the semester because these are names, whether students have read them or not, that students know in some capacity: Whitman, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. Even with this, though, each of these authors writes back to a text we will have read throughout the course of the semester. For example, Hawthorne writes back to the Puritans. So even if these are the traditionally “canonical” authors, they did not appear out of nowhere. They appeared within a conversation and added to that conversation.

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

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