Myths, legends, and folktales seem never to go out of style, constantly making comebacks (and not only in popular culture). Why the appeal? Besides pleasantly satisfying escapist tendencies or our need for sensational answers to our existential questions, and exercising our imagination, myths and legends have survived as the synecdoche for, and condensation of, the defining character of a nation or a culture. This course, through its detailed examination of American-born legends and myths created and disseminated from the 15th to the early 19th century will attempt to elucidate the defining traits of the nascent culture of the United States. Such knowledge can then be used in consequent evaluations of the North American literature and cultural phenomena. Following the theoretical approach of American Cultural Studies critic Stephen Greenblatt, who sees culture and text as interacting through the manipulation of communicational “codes,” the myths and legends will be examined both as literary (or oratory) statements and as negotiators of cultural norms. At the same time, those legends also serve as charter agents of a more shadowy kind, equally trafficking problematic concepts and rules that culture would otherwise refuse to acknowledge openly. Students will therefore be called upon to evaluate and comment both on the overt and clandestine—to the point of becoming deconstructed—meanings of the stories of, among others, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Calamity Jane, Pecos Bill, John Henry, Ragged Dick, La Llorona, and a number of texts about the First Peoples that show the influences of their persecuted cultures on their supplanters.
To familiarize students with a number of key myths, legends and fairy tales native to the American soil (at least in their final form), which help form the U.S. literary and cultural background.
To render students capable of recognizing and evaluating the importance of those myths in the shaping of a national literature and culture, and of using those myths further as tools for literary and cultural applications, theoretical or practical.
To train students further in deconstructive thinking and cultural criticism, allowing them to use this folk material as practice in the discovery of hidden meanings and complexities or flaws in reasoning of what appears to be fairly “straightforward” and “simple” traditional material.
To offer students a glimpse of the diversity and depth of the USA folk tradition.
To have fun: you don’t love it, you don’t learn—a pity to waste time like that!
Procedures and Grading Components:
Teaching will be conducted in the form of introductory lectures, followed by class discussion on the texts, with the instructor acting as facilitator. Though this is a non-graded class component, your input is essential for class operations and for your own assimilation of the material, so you are strongly urged to participate regularly. A class website (see below) will facilitate group study and exchange of ideas. Should any problems arise, please see the instructor as soon as possible.
Students will also be required to submit four (4) class journals on the dates designated on the schedule below. Each journal should be a 1-page minimum reaction papers, written right after your readings and reflecting your own personal thoughts on, or analyses of, one of the texts assigned for the given date. Journals must be typed, with 1.5 space and 12-pt. font regular letters. Please, no cover pages or plastic sheaths (spare the environment!). You are responsible for missed class material and journals: in case of absence on a journal date, either submit your paper electronically, or see the instructor about making it up. A hard copy of your journal should also be present at the start of the class on their due date, as students may be asked to read aloud their entries for the benefit of their peers. Journals (whole or parts) may also be posted on the website for peer-sharing, if the instructor sees fit to do so. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. Journals are collectively worth one (1) final grade point.
The final exam will consist of questions evaluating both your knowledge of the material offered in class and your ability to handle this material critically, analytically and comparatively. The exam will be worth nine (9) points.
Finally, for those who wish to earn up to a 2-point extra credit advantage, there is the option of preparing an individual research paper on an American legend or folktale not discussed in class (see list of suggested themes below). The assignment should not simply compile information on the subject, but should constitute your own critical or deconstructive analysis of the its elements, its relationship to its historical background and its formative ideology, following the footsteps of class procedures. Original thinking will be especially appreciated. Papers should be 6-8 typed pages long (see specifications for the journals above), with a Works Cited section of at least 6 sources, 3 of which should be from printed material (not only websites). Citation of sources should be according to the MLA Style Manual (available both at the Library and online at “The Owl at Purdue,” http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/557/01/); the parenthetical author-page number system should be used for in-text citation. Plagiarism? Don’t even think about it!
An American Legends Reader—PDF format. Ed. Christina Dokou. Athens: UoA, 2007. This, along with supplementary bibliography, texts, and other information can be found in the instructor’s website at http://users.uoa.gr/~cdokou/
Selections from TheNorton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., vols. A-C.
Readings from TheNorton Anthology of American Literature are indicated by (N) and the volume letter. Wherever no page numbers or text titles are mentioned, all the texts anthologized under the author’s name are included.
The nature of myth, legend, fairy tale; theoretical approaches; America as a legendary land
The Native Heritage: Apokalypto
“The Iroquois Creation Story”(N-A); Winnebago, “From the Winnebago Trickster Cycle” (N-A); The Hopi Emergence; The Odjibwa Corn Hero; Black Elk; Wovoka (N-C). JOURNAL 1
God’s People, Devil’s Land
W. Bradford, from Of Plymouth Plantation, Book 1, chapters I, IV, IX-XII (N-A); C. Mather, from Wonders of the Invisible World (“A People of God…” and “The Trial of Martha Carrier”) (N-A).
From There to Eternity
Hiawatha; V. Lindsay; Geronimo; Custer’s Last Stand; THESIS CHOICE DUE.
The Skeleton Hand; Bigfoot; The Jersey/Leeds Devil; A Loup-Garou…; The Windigo; “He Ate All the Democrats”; JOURNAL 2
La Llorona; H. Melville, Moby Dick, Chapters XXXVI, XLI, XLII (N-B)
Paul Bunyan stories; Mike Fink stories; The Warrior Woman.
The Taming of the Shrub
Johnny Appleseed stories; Davy Crockett stories; Jim Bowie stories. JOURNAL 3
Men of Steel—Stealing Man
John Henry stories; Casey Jones stories; Joe Magarac; Tommyknockers; Thoreau; Adams.
Kill Bill Thrill
Billy the Kid stories; Wild Bill stories; Jesse James stories. BIBLIOGRAPHY DUE.
The Wild, Wild Words
Pecos Bill stories; Buffalo Bill stories; Calamity Jane stories. JOURNAL 4
Democracy Lessons for Übermensch
Hero President stories; Paul Revere; Manifest Destiny; De Crèvecoeur; Yankee Doodle; Miss Liberty; Uncle Sam. OUTLINE DUE
Rags 2 Riches: The Paradox
Franklin; The Work Ethic; Stackalee.
Suggested Research Topics (please see instructor first to avoid double bookings!):