English 305: American Literature I (Hamelman) HAMELMAN 305 SYLLABUS
English 305 starts from the premise that studying the first two hundred years of American literature is excellent preparation for understanding and appreciating the more popular “canonical” literature, falling under the rubric of romanticism, of the nineteenth century. Themes and subjects that mark colonial and Enlightenment texts c. 1600-1800 are republican politics, the individual vs. the state, nature, the Indian and Other, free market economics, religion and spirituality, dream and vision, and American identity. Because these topics are fundamental to early American culture, the authors who treat them in a wide variety of genres—memoir, sermon, didactic poem, captivity narrative, satire, speech, letter, diary, and so on—lay the groundwork for what follows during the Age of American Romanticism (c. 1800-1865), when literature tends to express two sides, the transcendental and the morbid, of a new sensibility of feeling. But it is also a time when hard political and social issues absorbed writers. For one thing, the theme of slavery (connected on political and philosophical levels to the theme of the individual vs. the state) came to the forefront of American literary consciousness. Paralleling this issue was the matter of women’s rights, which male and female writers addressed with the same fervor they gave to the slavery question. In English 305 we take what we learn about colonial and Enlightenment literature and culture and then analyze the ways writers of the romantic age diverged from these two earlier periods. Romantic transcendentalists, though drawing much of their inspiration from Puritan mysticism, inhabited a mindset far removed from the dogma we associate with our witch-hunting, introspective forebears in New England, and transcendentalists also rejected tenets of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, morbid romantics like Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville reflect a romanticism having little in common with the Enlightenment rationalism of Benjamin Franklin. In terms of the countless writers that resist categorization as either transcendental or morbid, we will look mainly at a few who tackled the question of constitutional freedom for women and slaves. Colonial-to-romantic American literature encompasses theological, political, social, economical, philosophical, and literary themes, all embedded in a multitude of genres. Reflected in the literature of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries is a wide range of material that represents a culture renowned as much for its dialectic diversity as for the comic and tragic paradoxes that underlie its ideology of free expression.