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American Identity as explored by the Nineteenth Century Best Selling Novel

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Dawn Robey

on 26 April 2010

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Transcript of American Identity as explored by the Nineteenth Century Best Selling Novel

Shaping American Identity Through Nineteenth Century Best Sellers
English 455 D Overview of the Course: Identity was a crucial element of nineteenth century American life. With the country reaching its first centennial many Americans found it difficult to identify with the vast cultural differences found in the countries’ shifting social atmosphere. The question of “What it mean to be American” was forefront and the discovery of that answer was elemental in possessing a national identity. Best selling literature exemplified this question by posing models of American heroes and heroines which possessed traits that the public found to be distinctly American. In this course we will explore best selling fiction from the nineteenth century for it’s value to nineteenth century readers as well as it’s literary legacy and contributions to the American identity.
Goal of the Course: The goal of the course is for students to be able to leave with a distinct feeling of what it means to be American; in the nineteenth century and today. We will accomplish this by analyzing novels that represent nineteenth century life for their cultural power as well as their academic worth. All of the assigned course material achieved best seller status in the nineteenth century. The authors presented never became part of canonical fiction but did achieve star status during their nineteenth century reign. By analyzing novels that the nineteenth century held to be best sellers we will strive to ascertain why they were popular and what they contributed to American Identity.
How Will We Do This? The course will explore the presented materials using a cultural studies approach. Theorists Jane Tompkins and John Fisk will be relied upon to structure that approach as well as students own knowledge about what makes a text popular. The novels will be compared to canonical fiction from the same time period as well as popular culture fiction today. These comparisons will allows for a placement of the novels among a spectrum of popularity while exemplifying their contributions to both academic research (as posed by the canon) and American identity. We will explore the question of why the novels were non canonical but they were best sellers. We will also question the cultural power of the course material by applying Tompkins notions of cultural power to the texts presented and seeing how they stand up against theory. What Will We Study? The assigned course material will cover a range of time spanning from 1826 to 1884. The novels represent a 60 year span of publication that can be connected to social and cultural turmoil in America as represented by the range of themes introduced in these novels. Yet, each protagonist has similar moral values that represent their growing “American-ness” though the circumstances in which they live are quite different. Both female and male authors are represented in the course material; as is a range of settings from rural New York to the widely unexplored American frontier. The vast differences in setting and circumstance that is found in the course material reflects the differences in cultural existence in nineteenth century literature. By choosing such a range of material students are presented with a panoramic picture of American life, from the farm to the city; which allows them to assess America as a whole, as opposed to separated by cultural and social differences.
Course Material James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
Catherine Maria Sedgewick, Hope Leslie (1827)
Susan Warner, The Wide Wide World (1850)
E.D.E.N. Southworth, The Hidden Hand (1859)
Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick (1867)
Marietta Holley, My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's (1884)
What Kind of Students Benefit from the Course? This course is applicable for any students who strive to understand what it means to be American. English majors are encouraged to take this course for it’s value as an alternative to canonical fiction. The texts explored have not achieved canonical status and have likely been ignored during classical teaching, yet they possess value in identifying American literature. The opportunity to explore best selling fiction for it’s value without relying on the theories of the canon is extraordinary. History majors would also benefit from this course because the material presented holds significance not only for it’s value to nineteenth century readers but also for its historical context. The novels read place historical events along side cultural norms and widely held views. Anthropology majors would also find value in this course for it’s exploration of people in social and cultural situations. Overall, any college major could value from taking this course because of its unusual approach to popular culture and it’s notions of American identity.
A course description designed for Students of all majors. Description Designed by: Dawn A Robey ClassTaught by: Dr. Rigsby
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