The festival year of holidays and seasonal celebrations has informed a great deal of literature in English, from the New Year’s gift-giving and subsequent holiday celebrations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Boxing Day rituals enacted in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the reflections on festivals of the church year in the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, Christina Rosetti, and T.S.Eliot. So, too, has the practice of piety been central in English literature, from the pilgrimage that gives occasion for the Canterbury Tales to the motivations—sometimes genuine, sometimes suspect—for characters from Sir Gawain and Shakespeare’s aptly named Malvolio to the protagonists in various Canterbury Tales and
subsequent fiction or drama. A sense of revelation, as well, often (but not always) religiously or supernaturally defined, infuses a wealth of English literature, particularly in the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlotte Brontë, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Hampl, and Carol Bly, but also in works by
James Joyce, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Raymond Carver, Alice Walker, Bich Minh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Louise Erdrich, and Anchee Min. Contemporary non-fiction as well, such as that by humorists Garrison Keillor and David Sedaris, often makes reference to religion in the fabric of its observations.
In the course, in addition to reading works by the aforementioned authors, we will discuss theories of Carnival vs. Lent, the changing definitions of Christian sacraments in England’s history, religious observances such as the Corpus Christi celebrations and Passion plays, controversies over Catholic and traditional Celtic celebration in Shakespeare’s England, anti and philo-Semitism in England, and various literary forms and traditions, including heroic quest romances, allegory, conventions of courtly love, festive comedy, sonnet sequences, metaphysical poetry, literary epiphany, and more. The frame of reference for most of the works is Christian, but not exclusively. You do not need to be a person of faith to take the course; the works of literature are rich on multiple levels and together form the basis for a compelling introduction to literary studies.Assignments will include two formal papers, frequent research or interpretive blog postings on
Blackboard, occasional presentation of those postings to the class, and a midterm and a final exam.
The idea of “home”—whether as a particular place or group of people (or both)—evolves over time, and
it is always at the heart of how we understand ourselves. Our sense of wholeness, accomplishment, and
success is closely tied to our home. A frequent theme in great literature involves characters who may
journey great distances from home but who, literally and figuratively, carry reminders of people and
place as they attempt to maintain integrity, happiness, peace until they can return again.
I’m interested in the reasons people choose to become writers and in the ways writers try to analyze and control their creative processes. This course explores the relationship between the evolution of the English language, the major forms of literary expression (drama, poetry, fiction), and the dynamics of the human imagination.
For the last 150 years, Western societies have regarded the autonomous writer as the most inspiring (or dangerous) example of our highest values. Especially in Europe and America writers are often seen as profound social critics embodying democratic principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This course asks: Is this sort of adulation warranted?
When we examine the last 1000 years, though, the evolution of the writer’s place in society seems more complicated. Two long-term dynamics “set the menu” for writers: the evolution of the language they choose to write in and the birth and death of forms of story-telling. Writers have very little control over either. At the same time, the individual human imagination seems to function most creatively when “boxed in” by limits on its freedom. Can we give a rational explanation of this paradoxical relation between freedom and loss of control?
To help us find answers to these questions, we’ll begin with a glance back to Aristotle’s “theory” of Tragedy as an early Western example of trying to analyze the creative process. Then, we’ll pick up the story of the English language and, throughout the term, follow its evolution up to our own time. Finally we’ll focus on writers who are often credited with “changing” the art of writing but who also inherited much that they could not change. Our main texts will be provided by Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Fanny Burney, William Wordsworth, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglas, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, and Louise Erdrich.
Quizzes, mid-term and final exans, two short essays, and a 3,000-word paper form the work of the course.
Human beings have a natural tendency to desire a better future and to daydream about living in a more perfect society. But what would a more perfect society look like? This is a question writers have tried to answer for hundreds of years, and this body of imaginative writing is named utopian literature, after Sir Thomas More’s hugely popular Utopia (1516). In this course, we will explore the nature and evolution of utopian literature, as well as the emergence of dystopian literature (such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), which imagines societies far worse than our own. We will discuss many of the important artistic and political questions that utopian and dystopian texts raise. Possible texts for the course include: More’s Utopia, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four(1949), M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2002), and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003).
At turns inspiring and terrifying, the wilderness has long played a central role in literature, and, in this course, we will explore how writers both reflect and construct the wilderness in their texts. Readings will span genres ranging from poetry to science fiction to film and feature works by a diverse group of writers including William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Jack London, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard, to name only a few. In the process, we will also concentrate on improving our skills of literary analysis. Reading well requires a great deal of work and attention: it demands self-reflection, as well as a knowledge of forms and genres of literature and a familiarity with some of the historical, political, and social concerns that underlie texts. Effectively expressing our ideas about what we read is also critical, so writing and discussion will be major components of this course. Work will include two formal essays, a mid-term and final exam, as well as quizzes and short reading responses.
In the late-18th century at the beginning of the Romantic period, William Blake divided individuals’ existence into two categories, “Innocence” and “Experience,” contrasting the two states of the human spirit. At the same time, the American Revolution gave birth to a new nation, and much of the young country’s social or political history similarly can be seen as a journey from innocence to experience. This course will help develop an understanding of how the significant transitions from innocence to experience by individual characters or by the society of the United States and its institutions have been evident in American literature written during the past two centuries.
Reading Assignments: Students will investigate various works (poems, short stories, a play, and a novel) available in the class anthology and commentary found on the Internet. Authors whose writings may be examined include the following: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Robert Hayden, Flannery O’Connor, Theodore Roethke, Ralph Ellison, Arthur Miller, Elizabeth Bishop, William Stafford, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Rita Dove, Gary Gildner, Yusef Komunyakaa, T.C. Boyle, Daisy Fried, and Patricia Smith.
Written Assignments: Course requirements include a brief essay, a term paper, midterm and final exams, as well as regular participation on the class discussion board.