Big Books of American Literature: Re-presenting the Intersections of Nation, Class, Race,and Gender: English 207, Anne Dalke, Senior Lecturer in English and Coordinator, Feminist and Gender Studies Program
Should we keep on reading the grand old literary narratives of 19th century America? And what stories are we telling about ourselves if we do?
"Since I first read Moby-Dick, for an undergraduate college class in 1969, the academic field of American Literature has recognized our need to explore a far broader range of conventions, histories and subjects than I was taught," Anne Dalke says. "I have done little since then but examine the limits of my academic training. Rooted in movements for racial justice and sex equality, American Literature has expanded enormously its attempts to represent all l iterary cultures. (For instance, I have for several years offered a course on Northamerican Migration Narratives, in which we looked at Jewish-, African-, Lakota-, Japanese-, and Mexican-American texts.) Conviction that art helps form us as social beings is implicit in all the curricular changes in which I have been involved: They are fueled by an aspiration to shape a more equitable future, and reconstructing American literature, for me, is part of that much broader move for equality.
"During our last search for an Americanist in the English Department here, the question arose as to who was teaching Big Old Books these days, and I volunteered-because they were the ones I first fell in love with. I was delighted with the invitation and opportunity to go back and re-read those texts interrogatively and critically: Not giving my students a map to the territory, but inviting them to re-trace and explore with me what these grand old books might tell us: Not just why they were written, where they came from-but what stories they tell us about ourselves.
"We began our study with Uncle Tom's Cabin, as perhaps best exemplifying Mark Twain's definition of a classic: "a book people want to have read but don't want to read." We played with the difference Jay Fliegelman illuminates between intensive and extensive reading practices; he shows how Americans in earlier centuries intensively read and re-read very few texts, especially the Bible, and works that against extensive practices-that is, reading all the exegesis on a given text.
"As we read, re-read, wrote, re-wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin during the first weeks of the course, we read multiple shorter texts of modern American literature criticism, including James Baldwin's denunciation of it as "Everybody's Protest Novel" and Jane Tompkins' celebration of its "Sentimental Power." We also read it forward into other cultural forms, considering, for instance, its role in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1956 motion picture, The King and I, in the 1992 trial of Rodney King, and i n Bill T. Jones's recent dance, Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land.
"Throughout the course, as we explored the role classics play in the construction of our culture, we considered American literature as an institutional apparatus, under debate and by no means settled. This project involved a certain amount of anti-disciplinary work: interrogating (refusing?) these books as naturalized objects, asking how they reproduced conventional categories, how we might re-imagine the cultural work they perform. What narratives about the country, about ourselves-about our nation, its c lasses, races and genders-do we want our canonical books to tell? How we can read them to complicate notions of 'America'?
"Key to this course were two principles: The students and I co-designed the class; after the initial module on Uncle Tom's Cabin, they chose which texts they wanted to read, which films they wanted to watch, and I filled in background and supplementary material. Secondly, we tried to make the classroom a playground for exploring, for 'thinking out loud together.' I gave a number of short lectures, but most all of the classes were student-directed: They selected both the topics they wanted to discu ss and the formats they wanted to use for doing so.
"We also made very good use of an on-line forum on Blackboard as a site to continue and expand our classroom conversation. Blackboard became a brainstorming, ruminating, talking space where the students could post additional ideas as they arose. I was delighted with this portion of this course, because it functioned as a rich extension of what was said and done in the books we read, in the films we viewed, and in the conversations we had together in the classroom. It materialized and archived not only the conversations we were having with one another, but also those we were conducting with ourselves, within our own heads."
Course requirements were attending and participating in class, leading class twice a semester, posting weekly on the web forum, and papers totaling 25 pages-the number of papers and their lengths were decided by each student.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; 1852; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Baldwin, James. "Everybody's Protest Novel." 1949; rpt. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 495-501.
Tompkins, Jane P. "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History." 1978; rpt. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 501-522.
The King and I. Dir. Victor Lang. Twentieth Century Fox. 1956.
Dancing to the Promised Land: The Making of Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zance Dance Co. Videorecording. VIEW Video.1994.
Murphy, Jacqueline Shea. "Unrest and Uncle Tom: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company's Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land." Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance. Ed. Ellen W. Goellner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy. New Brunwick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 81-106.
The Rodney King Case: What the Jury Saw in CA v. Powell. Videorecording. MPI Home Video. 1992.
Lott, Eric. Introduction and "Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production." Love and Theft : Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York : Oxford University Press, 1995. 3-12, 211-233.
Williams, Linda. "A Wonderful, 'Leaping' Fish: Varieties of Uncle Tom," and "Trials of Black and White: California v. Powell and the People v. Orenthal James Simpson." Playing the Race Card : Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2001. 45-95, 252-295.
Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: A Multi-Media Archive.
Electronic text and resources from UVA library.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. Lawrence, D.H. "The Spirit of Place" and "Herman Melville's Moby-Dick." Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1978. 7-14, 153-170.
Olson, Charles. "First Fact is prologue," "Call Me Ishmael" and "Fact #2 is dromen-on." Call Me Ishmael. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 3-15, 77-78.
Moby Dick. Dir. John Huston. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 1956.
The X-Files: "Quagmire" episode
Naslund, Sena Jeter. Ahab's Wife; or, The Star-Gazer. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.
Delbanco, Andrew. "Melville Has Never Looked Better." The New York Times Book Review. October 28, 2001. 13-14.
Insko, Jeffrey. "Art After Ahab." Postmodern Culture 12, 2 (2001)
Clemens, Samuel Langhorne. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Robinson, Forrest. "An 'Unconscious and Profitable Cerebration': Mark Twain and Literary Intentionality." Nineteenth-Century Literature 50, 3 (December 1995): 357-380.
Smiley, Jane. "Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain's 'Masterpiece,' " Harper's Magazine (January 1996): 61-67.
Arac, Jonathan. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
Margolis, Stacey. "Huckleberry Finn: or, Consequences." PMLA 2001: 329-343.
Jefferson, Margo. "Literary Pentimento." New York Times Book Review. February 17, 2002.
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Loew's. Dir. Richard Thorpe. 1939.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Disney Productions. 1993.
South Park: an episode on homophobia.
Spike Lee's Huckleberry Finn
(The class divided into two reading groups.)
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
Carpenter, Frederic. "Scarlet A Minus." American Literature and the Dream. 1955; rpt. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.
Arac, Jonathan. "The Politics of The Scarlet Letter." Ideology and Classic American Literature. Ed. Sacvan Bercovith and Myra Jehlen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Roger, Patricia. "Taking a Perspective: Hawthorne's Concept of Language and Nineteenth Century Language Theory." Nineteenth-Century Literature 51, 4 (March 1997): 433 454.
Gone with the Wind. Selznick International Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Dir. Victor Fleming. 1939. Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women, 1868-69.
McIntosh, Peggy. "Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-vision: A Feminist Perspective." Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1983.
Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Dalke, Anne. " 'The House-Band': The Education of Men in Little Women." College English 47, 6 (October 1985): 571-578.
Stadler, Gus. "Louisa May Alcott's Queer Geniuses." American Literature 71, 4 (December 1999): 657-677.
Little Women. Columbia Pictures. Dir. Gillian Armstrong. 1994.
Sex and the City: the baby shower episode.
Unit Five: Selections from Whitman and Dickinson
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass, 1855.
Moon, Michael. "Introduction: Whitman and the Politics of Embodiment." Disseminating Whiteman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.1-25.
Sachez-Eppler, Karen. "To Stand Between: Walt Whitman's Poetics of Merger and Embodiment." Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 50-82.
Dickinson, Emily. Final Harvest, 1890.
Bennett, Paula. "Of Genre, Gender and Sex." Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990. 150-180.
Runzo, Sandra. "Dickinson, Performance, and the Homoerotic Lyric." American Literature 68, 2 (June 1996): 347-363.
The Classroom Electric
The Geographical Imagination in Whitman and Dickinson
You may order these books from the Bryn Mawr College Bookstore, whose proceeds benefit the College: Elizabeth Morris, Bryn Mawr College Bookshop, New Gulph Road, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010, 610 526 5322, email@example.com Return to Fall 2002 highlights