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ENGL.2820: American Literary Traditions - Millner

Blue Boat by Winslow Homer
Blue Boat by Winslow Homer

American Vistas: Writings from First Contact to the Present

The course surveys "American writings" over a 500-year period even as it repeatedly questions and re-evaluates what constitutes "America" and "American writing". The plural and polyglot "vistas" of the title is meant to suggest multiple visions of American and American writing. How these various vistas relate and interact with each other will be one of our central questions.

Students often find this course intellectually invigorating because it is so expansive, so big. Indeed, I hope the course provides an opportunity for students to explore major transformations in western worldviews and, even, major shifts in our understanding of what it means to be human.

Course Objectives

Although our discussion topics will range widely, we have three touchstones.

First, over the past decade and a half, terms and concepts like "globalism", "transnationalism", the "Atlantic World" and the "post-national" have begun to transform the study of American literature and American culture.  Thus we begin this course in a transatlantic fashion, reading authors that may appear at first to have little to do with the United States: works of the Spanish explores (Columbus) and indigenous people. These texts, as well as those by African-American slaves, often unsettle the conventional narrative of early American literature which plots a story from a small religious community of the Puritans to a national (re)naissance.

Second, the class will turn to writings of various genres (letters, explorers' diaries, sermons, poetry, short stories, essays, political documents) in order to examine a number of historical forces and events. Among these are: exploration, migration, first contact between Western Europeans and Native Americans, settler colonialism, the Iroquois Confederacy, nation building, empire building, African diaspora, the Great Awakening, western expansion, the rise of the professional author, the Enlightenment and the rise of the public sphere, Puritanism, Deism, romanticism, the Revolution, transcendentalism, capitalism, individualism and self-reliance, reform movements, Manifest Destiny, urbanization, early feminism, the "American Renaissance", modernism, the Progressive Movement, the American Century, and Postmodernism

Third, to this long list of historical forces and events we will add a number of conceptual terms which will help us understand and develop an important self-consciousness about the project of studying these writings. Those terms will include: American exceptionalism, canon formation and the politics of the canon, historiography, cultural production of identity, self-fashioning, hegemonic or cultural power, nation as imagined community, transatlantic, and transnational.


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