English 560: American Literature: Race, Nation, Empire

Course Description: 

Race, nation, and empire have constituted particularly robust and durable analytic frameworks for American writers and for the study of American literature more generally. This course considers how these three key terms have engaged writers during the rise and hey-day of US nation formation and how these terms have subsequently shaped critical accounts of the US literary tradition, particularly over the last decades.

Throughout the semester we will ask: What happens if we dislocate the stable place of race, nation, and empire in US literary studies? Do these three key analytic terms provide a sufficient critical lens for understanding the rich literary production of the nineteenth-century United States? We will endeavor to answer these questions by focusing on those literary texts that look far beyond the nation’s clearly defined geopolitical and territorial boundaries. In particular, we attend to how these terms are operative in maritime narratives, for it well may be that it is in water’s transient spaces, rather than on land, that American writers conceive of the limit cases and rich possibilities of race, nation, and empire in the US project.

In the first part of the course, we take the geographic region understood to be “the last place on earth”—Antarctica—as a case study.  Drawing on the scientific writings of the US Exploring Expeditions (1838-42), American writers from Edgar Allen Poe to Herman Melville to James Fenimore Cooper, among others, imagined the touch-points between this last place on earth and the US national project. Further, contemporary scientists and explorers turned to literary expression in order to depict their experiences (for example, James Palmer in his epic poem Thulia: A Tale of the Antarctic (1843) and John Cleves Symmes in his utopian novel Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery (1820), based upon his Theory of Concentric Spheres, which he delivered to Congress in 1834 and upon which Poe drew in Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym).  With this limit case as a framework, we will spend the second half of the semester considering, more generally, how US writers conceived of the nation and its limits through recourse to maritime narrative.

Course Outcomes: 

By the end of this course, you will:

  • Have a comprehensive understanding of the major critical frameworks that have guided American literary studies over the last two decades
  • Have generated an original written contribution to some aspect of 19th-century American literary criticism
  • Have read, thought, and been responsible for shaping class inquiry into a range of themost significant literary texts focused on race, nation, and empire in the 19th-Century United States

English 560: 19th-Century American Literature: U.S. Literatures in the Americas

Course Description:

American literary studies over the past twenty to thirty years have undergone dramatic changes, and arguably the field finds itself at an exciting and potentially revolutionary moment in the early years of the twenty-first century. Gender, race, ethnic, and women’s studies helped to transform the canon during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and new developments in hemispheric, transatlantic, and transnational studies have raised questions about the very viability of American literary studies.

Questions this course will consider include: Does it make sense to continue to focus attention on the literature of the United States as constituting, in Richard Poirier’s well-known formulation, a world elsewhere? What is the utility and durability of the idea of nation in a global era? How do we categorize, analyze, and conceptualize our field imaginary once we revisit the geographic assumptions that have so long shaped disciplinary parameters? Given that nations and other old units remain in play even as comparative spaces can change the rules of the game, what productive tensions emerge between these rubrics?