Faculty Course Description
ENG333WI: American Romanticism and Transcendentalism
Dr. Christina Bucher
Office: Evans 225A
Office phone: 233-4076
Perhaps the time is come . . . when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions around us that are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The American Scholar” 1837
The years between 1820 and 1865 represent one of the most exciting periods in American literary and cultural history. Many writers responded to Emerson’s clarion call for a truly American literature, particularly in the decade between 1845-1855, when such now-canonized classics including The Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, Walden, and Moby Dick were published. Indeed, this decade, and more generally the entire period, has been dubbed “The American Renaissance” for the intense flowering of literature it beheld. Many of the works produced during this time established such enduring American themes as the importance of nature, the frontier, and the relationship -- often conflicted -- between the individual and society; they helped create what we might call the “mythology” of America -- our sense of who we are as a country and as a body of people. Part of our goal will be to explore these themes in the works we read.
While Emerson urged that American writers throw off the “sere remains of foreign harvests” to create a uniquely American voice, in fact both they and he drew on the “foreign harvest” of European Romanticism in creating this new voice. We’ll also spend this semester exploring how European Romanticism became transformed into American Romanticism -- especially into its two primary strains: the sunny optimism of the New England Transcendentalists (and the similar work of New York poet, Walt Whitman) and the bleaker vision of the “Dark Romantics” such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. We will also examine to what extent Romantic thought influenced authors writing on two of the key social issues of this era: slavery/race and “the woman question.” Particular attention will be given to placing all texts in their socio-historical contexts as well as thinking about their relevance for today.
In selecting texts for the course, I am striving for a mix of canonical and lesser-known works. We’ll begin the semester by examining the beginnings of American Romanticism in the poetry of William Cullen Bryant and the art of the Hudson River School of painters and in Hope Leslie, an action-filled historical novel about Puritans and Native Americans by Catherine Maria Sedgwick. Then we’ll jump into the “big three” Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. From Fuller, we’ll move to a novel that technically falls out of the time period (1874), but which is nonetheless very appropriate for the course. Work: A Story of Experience, by Louisa May Alcott, daughter of Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott and neighbor and friend of Emerson and Thoreau, offers both support and critique of Transcendentalist thought. Harsher critiques will be found in short stories by Poe and Hawthorne and in Melville’s glorious tome, Moby Dick. We’ll then move to the revolution in American poetry sparked by Walt Whitman (who, more than anyone, set out to answer Emerson’s call for America to be sung) and Emily Dickinson. The course will end by examining the issue of slavery and race in Our Nig, a novel by African-American writer Harriet E. Wilson. While it is a bit unusual not to include one of the major slave narratives of the time (Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs), I opted for a less familiar text that melds conventions of the slave narrative with the popular sentimental novels of the time.
Hope Leslie or, Early Times in the Massachusetts, Catherine Maria Sedgwick (Penguin)
Self-Reliance and Other Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Dover)
Walden, Henry David Thoreau (Dover)
Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller (Dover)
Work: A Story of Experience, Louisa May Alcott (Penguin)
Moby Dick, Herman Melville (Penguin)
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (Penguin)
Our Nig, Harriet E. Wilson (Vintage)
short stories and poems on reserve
Work may include quizzes and short writings, oral presentations, article reviews, a close-reading essay, an essay that makes connections between past and present, and collaborative work.