English 365/565*: Studies in American Literature

Cr. 3

 Ruff: Asian-America Writers

Our task in this class will be to explore what “Asian-American” means as a descriptor preceding the word “writer” or “writing.”  One might even go further and say our task is to give meaning to the hyphen between “Asian” and “American.”  How this writing became or becomes literature is another important question we will explore.  

We will read works by prominent Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Indian-American, Pakistani-American, and perhaps other Asian-American writers.  Our syllabus will also include writers whose Asian-American writing is not connected to their ethnic origins, and no should be surprised if we look at some Asian-American films.   Students should come prepared to read deeply and widely, to write often, to participate fully in discussions. 


Stewart: African American Literature

Today it is impossible to imagine American literature without noting the contributions of African 
American writers such as Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes.  The critical and 
popular success of black writers, however, was far from inevitable.  In fact, the entire idea of “African 
American literature” was antithetical to the slave system into which many of the early black writers were 
born.  Slaveholders and stringent laws denied literacy, and the nation did not recognize slaves as full 
human beings, let alone American citizens. Lacking formal political representation, the writers we will 
study from this period struggled to realize another form of representation through literature, setting a 
pattern that would continue to produce profound literary achievements well after slavery’s abolition. As 
this course travels from the nineteenth century to our contemporary era, we will explore a series of major 
books and texts that spoke out against imposed silences and challenged institutionalized practices of 
prejudice and exclusion. These writings attested to the generative, emancipatory power of literature even 
as they chronicled ongoing social and political struggles.  Moving from abolition to Oprah, political 
pamphlets to Book-of-the-Month club selections, we will consider how the production and circulation of 
such texts among actual communities of readers gave a unique body of literature the power to shape 
national politics and create a foundation for black culture. Students in this course will complete a series of short writing assignments (1-2 pages), two longer papers 
(5-7 pages), and a final exam.  Readings will be drawn from a range of writers and genres, spanning from 
the era of slavery to the modern day, and as we move into the twentieth century in particular, we will 
explore a cluster of writers centered around Chicago (writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston 
Hughes, and Richard Wright), as they consider the city’s racial and political landscape. The time span that the course covers ranges well into the period of public domain, and many of the course 
texts will be available through online sources.  The following editions, though, should be purchased: 
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 
ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah (Modern Library, 2004); The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois (Dover, 
1994); The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (Vintage, 2007). Shorter readings, poetry selections, and critical 
essays will either be provided through a course packet or via Blackboard.


Uehling: Short Stories of American Lives.

In this seminar, we will examine a range of short fiction that represents significant themes from twentieth and twenty-first century American life.  The course aims to provide some coverage of major figures (e.g., Welty, O’Connor, Faulkner) as well as in-depth work with collections of short stories by individual writers.  Some, like Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, represent collected new work; others, like Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, are linked in various ways so that they have individual value and also larger, collective meaning. 

Among the issues raised in these texts for our discussion are the following:  family relationships; friendship; the value of work; the presence or absence of religious faith; ideas of community; the search for an authentic voice and identity; death, dying, and other forms of loss; and humor as an answer to most problems.  Such themes have not been invented in our lifetimes, of course, but they are distinctly shaped by modern and contemporary circumstances and attitudes.  We will also consider the craft with which writers tell their stories, and we will look at differences in narrative strategy.

James Nagel, ed., Anthology of the American Short Story; Robert Olen Butler,  A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain; Alice Munro,  Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; Richard Russo, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories; Andre Dubus II, Selected Stories.

Course Requirements: Your grade will come from a midterm and a final exam and from a research paper of 12-15 pages.  Attendance and participation are essential.  More than 3 absences will lower your grade; strong participation will raise it.


Graber: American War Literature

In this course we will explore how the experience of war has shaped American literature and how our concepts of national war have been affected by its literary representations.  Wars are monumentally disruptive cultural events and their influence on American literature has been massive.  Some of our best-known writers, from Walt Whitman to Ernest Hemmingway, have built careers partly around their war writing, and it would be difficult to find a major writer who has had nothing to say about the topic. 

Good war literature is never solely concerned with combat, and as we study these texts we will be addressing major questions about the nature of America, about the individual’s relationship to the state, and about whose stories are considered worth telling and why.  We will also be considering America’s war literature in the context of other war representations that reverberate through our culture in the form of Hollywood films, television programs, monuments, and political propaganda.  As we explore how literature has presented American war—whether as an ideal of citizenship, as a racial and gendered heritage, or as senseless carnage—we will also be tracing the story of a complex and often divided nation.


Uehling: Fiction by American Women.

In this class we will attempt to gain some depth and breadth as we examine short fiction and novels written by American women from the late nineteenth century to the present day. We will focus on five individual texts--full-length novels and collections of short stories--that explore representations of women establishing a sense of identity at different ages, in various cultural and historical contexts. As a significant part of this self discovery/self definition, we will carefully define connections between self and place. We will identify and discuss the images, characters, and narrative techniques that American women writers have employed to represent the American experience(s) of women and men. Inevitably, we will consider generalized conceptions of gender roles that exist within particular cultures, at particular times. In addition to the "core" texts, we will read widely among writers of short fiction who address common issues in aesthetically provocative ways. My intent is that you will come away from this class with a list of at least a dozen writers that you want to pursue further on your own. Requirements: two critical papers of six to eight pages; a mid-term exam and a final, comprehensive exam.


Byrne: Regionalism in American Poetry .

Some of the most significant American poets have been associated with specific geographical locations. As one critic has noted, for American poets regionalism "is not, however, a vague pastel local-colorism or a taking on of local props, but a vigorous use of visual experiences in a particular place--what Richard Hugo called a 'triggering town'--that sets a poetic process going." Poets whose works will be read in this course include Robert Frost and Robert Lowell (New England), Theodore Roethke (Midwest), Richard Hugo and William Stafford (Northwest), James Wright and Rita Dove (Ohio), Cathy Song (Hawaii), Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg (New York City), Carolyn Forch (El Salvador), and others. Course requirements include a midterm exam, a final exam, and a critical paper (twelve to fifteen pages).


Ruff: The Hudson River Valley as Site of American Literary and Cultural Origins.

We can trace the origins of American fiction, American landscape painting, American tourism, American environmentalism, even the American prison system, back to the same place and to the same period of time: the Hudson River Valley during the 1820s. Go back in time a bit further and we find the melting pot metaphor for American cultural assimilation coming out of this locale. Go back even further and we can trace certain key principles of our system of government to their origins in the culture of indigenous American peoples native to this area. So why these developments, in that place, and so many of them at that time? And what meaning do we find embedded in such stories, considered both in and of themselves and collectively? These and other questions we will put to primary and secondary texts, both literary and visual. Students enrolling in this class can expect to read and write about works by Crevecoeur, Irving, Cooper, and Bryant, some of which we will consider alongside paintings by Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Jasper Cropsey and George Inness, plus works from the Brauer Museum of Art. We will also consider works that treat the evolution of tourism and prisons in the area, along with ethnological works on the Iroquois Confederation. Our task will finally be to see what a study of these origins tells us about our contemporary cultural situation as it exists more than a hundred and fifty years later. Students in this course will keep a daily reading journal, will write two shorter papers (four to six pages), will complete a longer research paper (ten to twelve papers), and will take a final exam.


Ruff: The Harlem Renaissance.

In this course we will explore one of the most important cultural movements to occur this century in America, the Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement. Though our primary focus will be on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, most of it produced during the 1920s by writers such as James Weldon Johnson, Claude McCay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston, we will also attend to the philosophers, musicians, and visual artists who made Harlem an African-American mecca of the arts up until the time of the Great Depression. Students in this course will keep a daily reading journal, write two shorter papers (four to six pages) and a longer paper (eight to twelve pages) which will incorporate scholarship and criticism, and take a final exam.


Byrne: American Environmental Literature.

Throughout American literature, there has been an honored tradition of nature writing, ranging from the essays of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson to the field studies of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Mary Austin, John Burroughs, and Rachel Carson. However, contemporary authors have brought a new perspective to writing about nature and, consequently, sparked an increased interest in literature about the relationship between humans and their environment. This recent approach to nature writing has recognized that nature writing involves much more than the wilderness seen from a safe distance, but involves an active and interpretive role for the author and calls for writing which combines aesthetic, scientific, cultural, and political analysis. To accommodate this comprehensive viewing of nature, today's authors have begun to refer to themselves as writers of "environmental literature." Required texts might include the following: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey; The Ninemile Wolves by Rick Bass; Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez; Land Circle by Linda Hasselstrom; Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee; and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. In addition, recommended readings would include Walden (Thoreau), Nature (Emerson), Sand County Almanac (Leopold), The Land of Little Rain (Austin), Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Dillard), Mountains of California (Muir), as well as Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing (Slovic) and A Natural History of Nature Writing (Stewart). An extensive bibliography of suggested readings will also be distributed in the first class session.

Written requirements would include a series of short essays and a term paper. There will also be a final examination.


Owens:  The American Short Story

In this course, we will examine the growth and development of the short story as a genre of American literature from colonial times until the present.

Issues and themes considered will include the impact of the changing American culture on short fiction, the development of the short story as a respected literary genre, the development of a uniquely American literature, craft differences between short stories and novels, how writers of short fiction influenced one another, and the short story cycle as a genre.

In addition to a mid-term and final exam, students will complete two short papers and one longer (12-20 pages) independent research project on a topic they develop.