American Lit (classically)

I’m teaching American Lit this fall, and I’m trying to rack my brain. I need the spirit of the ages to complete the thing. I spent the week trying to assemble a reading list for my students, and frankly, I’m still reeling with the challenge.

Mainly, the issue that is confronting many classrooms is that some canonical texts are considered to be racist. But I concur with the notion that these works have stood the test of time for reasons unrelated to their inherent racism. We can still get a lot out of reading these texts, even though we don’t necessarily think the same way that they did.

This is also part of the internal zeitgeist of the American literary canon. Some have suggested that like Delillo’s Underworld, American literary icons produce these cultural artefacts that tell us more about the age that they were written in than anything about the “warm-blooded” individuals that make up a society.

I’ve got a pretty good handle on the subject matter, but I want to inspire my students. I want to make sure that all the bases are covered. If I drop the ball, it won’t be because I haven’t prepared a lot. I need a lot of encouragement, and frankly, it’s coming from the bottom up.

I’m looking to cover the antebellum period with reference to Transcendentalism (Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau) and a peek into Henry James in the post-bellum period. What seems less opaque is the transbellum period (1860-1865). The journalism of Whitman is always helpful, but may need some scaffolding to truly understand.

I think the main thing that I’m wrestling with is how to present the literary period without too much historical background, and yet to couch it in terms of literary movements that defined the period. I love Henry Adams ‘The Education of Henry Adams,’ but am not sure that my students would take well to it.

It is important not to overload the students with text. They have a significant reading load and get behind easily. So the main issue might to be to contextualize the text that they are reading instead of introducing new text as a rule. Georgia State can be a place where students feel a little lost, so it’s good not to impose too much upon them.

What is paramount is to imaginatively transport students to the time period in which this piece was written. To do this, I often imaginatively ‘reenact’ the literature, especially to pique their interest. In this way, we are able to ‘walk a mile in the shoes’ of the writer, and get a better handle on the material.

The darned 4th chapter

I have been struggling with a forgotten relic of the 19th century American lit of the antebellum period. In fact, the novel itself, by Robert Henry Newell, is very little evidence of utopian thinking in this period. What it does reveal is that paper itself was a kind of utopia — an entrance point to a literate culture that could subsist on anti-woke dreams and romances. The novel ‘Avery Gleebun; between two fires’ (1857) is a tough read because of its paper thin characters and intense sentimentality.

But given that the most that people could afford at the time was a Bible and a few scattered religious tracts, the popular novel (of the time) had (HAD) to be sentimental. It is a work of literature with a few choice gems scattered in between pages of almost impenetrable sentimental dialogue. But why this work & its author fell into the forgotten list of antebellum authors who were NOT Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville is a blessed mystery that I am trying to unravel.

This novel has struck my interest, as well as the Orpheus C. Kerr (a pun based on “Off-Ice See-Ker”) Papers, has relaunched my study into the history of print in the 19th century. This begins and ends with William Charvat’s ‘Literary Publishing in America 1790-1850,’ a book that I have yet to fully read and truly appreciate. I’m going to try to read and take notes in hopes that a Ch. 4 of the dissertation will emerge.

I still remember that ‘God gives us the privilege of seeing the right’ to quote A. Lincoln, the 16th president and a fan of R. H. Newell’s work. So it will take a mountain of prayer to get over this hill which is also a kind of desert. I hope to emerge from it unscathed, but fear that it may be everlong (Foo Fighters’ song) an issue that never gets resolved. I hope that I am able to get a bird’s eye view of this chapter but it may not happen.

Sea of paper