ENG 231 American Literature Before 1865

Richard H. Millington, M W F 10:00 AM-10:50 AM

 This version of English 231will focus on the extraordinary burst of literary creativity that coincided with the emergence of a recognizably modern American culture—a culture whose key questions of meaning and value remain pressingly our own.  In the period stretching (roughly) from the 1820s through the 1860s, American writers interpreted and criticized American life with unmatched imaginative intensity and formal boldness.  Though this was a post-revolutionary generation of writers, their great theme remained “liberty”—but their target was not British control but the subtler entrapments of orthodox thinking, constricted vision, a self-poisoning psyche, and a repressive or unjust social life.  This freedom-seeking is most directly and heroically apparent in the great slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Meanwhile, Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville challenge the forms of self-making and self-seeking a marketplace world purveys to its citizens (a battle rich in ironies:  in the past few years sentences from “Self-Reliance” have sold Reebok shoes, while ads for mutual funds cite Walden with abandon); Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Fanny Fern create powerful female rebels; and several writers explore the psyche with an acuity worthy of Freud.  Finally—and perhaps most spectacularly—this period unfolds the achievement of two of the most original poets who ever wrote in English:  Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

 Written work: probably 2 essays (5-6 pages each; a draft and revision will be required for the first essay), a midterm, and a final exam.