English 3702 American Literature: 1870-1910
Section 001 CRN 90800
American Literature: 1870-1910 1500-1615 MW
The latter part of the nineteenth century in America witnessed a period of literary development that brought literary appreciation in the U.S. much closer to the mass standards of our own time. Here’s an example: most American readers today, when asked, can tell you what novel they’re currently into. But ask those same readers to simply name a recent collection of poems––let alone one they’ve actually read from cover to cover––and nine times out of ten they cannot. This represents a pendular swing from the literary tastes that dominated the early nineteenth century in America, when the word “poetry” was used to encompass all of what we now mean by “literature.” Emerson hardly even read novels––he regarded them as simply not very serious, a kind of waste of time––but described the work of poetry reverentially. Flashing forward fifty years, open up almost any major anthology covering the decades after the Civil War, and you won’t find a single poem until Edwin Arlington Robinson comes on scene at about the turn of the century. This is not to say there weren’t poems being written in America throughout the period. But professional literary historians now tend to recollect the second half of the century as having born witness to a great shift toward narrative, and indeed during this era the novel in particular seemed to supplant other forms as the most refined delivery system for the suspension of disbelief.
We’ll study the circumstances of that shift even as we study a late-nineteenth-century canon of work against a backdrop of accelerating social and political change. The texts we’ll study are among other things an attempt to articulate problems, and these problems include: the nature and value of “individualism” in a society that has consolidated itself into cities and factories; the relation between public and private spheres in a democratic society increasingly dominated by corporate capital; the tensions and antagonisms occasioned by unprecedented levels of immigration; the meaning of Darwinistic thought for a culture increasingly divided between the affluent and the poor; and the reconsolidation of white supremacist forces during and after Reconstruction. We will also sustain a conversation about the aesthetics of these texts, the techniques they embody as well as the artfulness they convey, even as we attempt to identify in that constellation the genome of our own tastes and predilections as twenty-first century readers. Two papers, two exams, and garrulous participation required. (Group 3B)