America is a nation founded on two documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Over the course of the nineteenth century, people’s interpretation of these two texts altered, as new understandings of what it meant to be American emerged. After the Civil War, for instance, the Constitution was redrafted to extend citizenship and voting rights to newly emancipated black slaves.
In this class, we’ll examine how literature played an active role in this process of redrafting and reinterpreting the meaning of America. We’ll see how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, revised many Americans’ opinions about slavery. We’ll also discover how theatrical adaptations of the book, in which the slave characters were played by “blacked-up” white actors, reinforced the racist stereotypes that Stowe had set out to challenge. More broadly, we’ll see how the development of different literary modes of expression, including Transcendentalism, American Gothic, and Realism, reflected changes in the way Americans thought about themselves and their society. The class will also introduce students to digital resources that can enhance their study of literature. Using online collation software, we’ll examine Henry James’s fascinating revision of his novella Daisy Miller.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Dover - 0486280489)