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.