Class Description

What has been said of Moby-Dick—that it's the greatest novel no one ever reads—could just as well be said of any number of American "classics" like The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This course reconsiders a small number of nineteenth-century American novels by presenting each in a surprising context.

We begin with Mary Rowlandson's narrative of her captivity among Wampanoags during Metacom's or King Phillip's War (1675-76), The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682). This non-fictional account clearly displays the tensions between religion and race, Puritan patriarchy and women's culture, in the new colony. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), a story of how Puritans punish an errant woman by making her wear a giant "A" and forcing her to live on the edge of the wilderness where the "Red Man" has his home, gets a new look when juxtaposed with Rowlandson's popular work and with Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824), in which a woman declares her independence of Puritan authorities and marries a Native American man.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), often seen as sentimentalizing slavery, directly inspired African American authors William Wells Brown (Clotel, 1853) and Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861) to write deeply critical slave narratives of their own; reading them together, and with Herman Melville's slave narrative, Benito Cereno (1855), enriches our notion of how authors communicated across the color line before the Civil War. Besides offering richly nuanced views of slavery, these works show surprising variety and complexity in their treatments of gender, religion, and history as well.

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), usually taken as a comic and satiric view of the American South, acquires new resonances when read with texts that take labor as their subject, like Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills (1861) or sections of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855; 1891-2). Both Davis and Whitman wrote boldly and frankly about the erotic dimensions of work, the impact of physical labor on the body, and the relationship between physical and aesthetic labor. These issues get submerged in Twain's work but surface nevertheless to remind us of the subtle connections between art and sexuality, slavery and other kinds of work.

Reading these books in fresh contexts, we discover that the familiar landscape of the American tradition looks unexpectedly new.

Schedule of Reading and Writing

Note: Reading includes all editorial introductions to the edition and as many supporting documents as possible, if the edition includes them. Please use assigned editions. Try to read the whole text before the first class.

1 Introduction
2 Mary Rowlandson, Narrative
3-4 Lydia Maria Child, Hobomok
5-7 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
8 Research workshop Essay one (5 pages) due
9-11 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
12-13 William Wells Brown, Clotel
14-15 Herman Melville, Benito Cereno
16-18 Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Essay two (10 pages) due in Ses #18
19 Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills

Conclude Davis

Walt Whitman, "A Song for Occupations," "Song of Myself"

21 Whitman, "Calamus"
22-24 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
25 Conclusion Essay three (5 pages) due

Course Requirements

Attendance and Participation (20%)

This is a discussion class where your attendance and participation are vital to your success and that of the entire group. If an emergency should arise that makes it impossible for you to attend class, you should notify me immediately by email.

You must explain all absences. Two will not be held against your grade. Any absence beyond those two deducts percentage points directly from your final grade (three for the third, four for the fourth, etc): two latenesses count as one absence. Repeated absences will lead to a formal warning and may end in your being dropped from the class.

If you have a conflict, like a recitation, lab, sports commitment, or job that meets during this class, you should not enroll.

Written Work (70%)

Essays are due at the beginning of class on the day assigned. Each should include a brief statement summarizing the process of writing. Essays must be typed or word-processed, double-spaced, and adequately margined, should include a title, and need to observe the conventions of grammar and spelling.

You will be asked to submit proposals for each essay and to meet with me in conference, as needed, to discuss topics. Each paper should include a bibliography showing familiarity with a variety of secondary texts, both print and online. Your editions of the texts supply a number of useful materials and references. Use MLA Works Cited format for all references.

In-class Report (10%)

At the beginning of the term you will select an author to research and present a 15-minute oral report on to the class. Your presentation should include a print handout for the class containing pertinent biographical or historical context, questions for discussion, and a bibliography including print and online sources using MLA Works Cited form. You should also provide materials in visual or other media.


Attendance and participation 20%
Written work - essays (20%, 30%, 20%) 70%
In-class report 10%

Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism attacks the freedom and integrity of thought. It violates the trust on which communication relies. Especially in a class that will depend to some extent on online research, you must know what constitutes plagiarism and avoid it.

The Literature Section has formulated this statement and policy for all plagiarism cases:

Plagiarism—use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available in the MIT Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.