American Literature, 1800-1915 (EL 266)

13 Oct 2005

Paper 1 Draft (4p minimum)

The basic criteria for this paper are the same as those introduced for exercise 1-2, although that exercise included a sample outline only because some students were clamoring for one. (We talked about how the outline didn't really help you write the paper, so I think that experiment has served its purpose.)

What is different for this paper is that I am asking you to include academic research -- that is, a peer-reviewed academic article.

Required Reading:
Researched Essays
Doing Literary Research

If you use Google as your starting point when you seek sources for your literature paper, you will waste plenty of time, and you may end up with sources that were authored by high school sophomores. Plenty of academic journals publish full versions of their articles online, but most do not. Since academic journals cost money to produce, the publishers don't give their articles away for free -- instead, they sell access rights to libraries.

Remember the research skills you learned in freshman comp, and use the library database to find academic books on literature, and peer-reviewed academic journal articles.

Databases you should use include Academic Search Elite, Modern Language. You might also ask a librarian to show you the new Literature Resource Center.
You may not find a whole book devoted to color symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. You may not find a whole article devoted to the particular Edgar Allen Poe poem you want to write about.

But that doesn't mean you should eject your topic and look for something else. If you can't find a source on parallels between the disease described in The Masque of the Red Death and the ebola virus, you might instead look for a book that describes Poe's basic knowledge of science. (Though I did, in fact, find just such an article in a journal called Emerging Infectious Diseases.)

But herein lies an important lesson:

If you write your paper first, and then "look for quotes" to support the paper you have already written, you will find the research process tedious and meaningless.
That "research" strategy may have sufficed in high school, but it will not work in college.

You should know the author, the article title, and the name of the journal in which the article appeared.

Be very careful to note whether you have found an article that reviews a book. In this case, the author of the article is not the one who conducted the research that went into the book. (Ideally, you should go and find the book being reviewed.)

SHU has an inter-library loan program that may help you get books in time for you to submit your revision of this paper, even if you'll have to write the rough draft based on resources that you can get your hands on now.

Criteria (same as Ex 2-1):

The paper should avoid plot summary

  • X "This is a story about..."
  • X "After the protagonist discovers the truth, he gets a real shock: his wife is just as dishonest as he was!").

The same goes for character description. Assume your reader knows the story well, and has a copy within reach.

The paper should avoid gratuitous personal responses

  • X "This exciting passage makes me think of the time I was climbing a mountain with my friend Sally, who..."
  • X "When I first read this passage, I thought..."
  • X "People should be judged by what they can do, not by who their parents are."

The paper should make a claim about the literary text, not about life or faith or politics or women or anything else in general. (Literature is the study of a particular artist's representation of reality, not the study of reality itself.)

Your thesis should be a claim about the specific work in particular

The harsh faith of the Puritan fathers perpetuated misery, forcing imperfect people to choose between keeping up the external appearances of moral perfection, or risk being rejected by the society they needed in order to survive.

The above thesis is unacceptable because it makes a claim about the Puritan faith, and refers to the nature of moral perfection and the social needs of the human individual for support. That way lies chaos.

Sometimes religious authorities are corrupt. One example of such a corrupt society can be found in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, where [plot summary begins here].

A different kind of problem. This one makes a claim about religious societies, and uses The Scarlet Letter as a handy example. If you swapped out this text for a different text that showed a corrupt religious society, or a news article about corruption in religion, the points the author wants to make will pretty much be the same.

Consider instead the following:

While Hawthorne is deeply critical of the Puritan society he represents in The Scarlet Letter, the story does not advocate the complete rejection of moral authority. Rather, it illustrates, through Dimmesdale's demise, the destructive power of moral irresponsibility, and through Hester's eventual triumph, the healing power of accepting responsibility for one's own weakness.

The revision makes a claim about Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and refers to specific incidents from the novel for support.


In your high school English class, if you read a short story about tension between a mother and daughter, your teacher probably rewarded you for writing an essay in which you described parallels between the story and your own life. Your teacher wanted evidence that you had read and understood the story, and so your teacher rewarded you for summarizing the plot, for describing how you felt while reading it, and for explaining what you might have done if you were in a similar situation.

In a college literature class, your instructor expects that you already know how to summarize a work of literature and relate it to your own life experience. You wouldn’t have passed high school English if you hadn’t mastered that skill.

One-sided claims such as “Adolph Hitler was evil,” “People should be judged by what they can do, not by the color of their skin” or “Women in the 1800s had fewer freedoms than they do now” are not good topics for a pro/con paper, because you will find little credible evidence to support an opposing view.

You might even think of this as a pro/pro paper – that is, you present all the best arguments for a claim, then you shift gears completely and present all the best arguments for a competing claim.

Avoid making a claim about faith, government, women, sin, how things are different today, or otherwise trying to use a creative literary work to prove a point about the real world.

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What is Paper 1 going to be/should be about?

Posted by: Lou Gagliardi at October 7, 2005 02:37 PM

Lou, I don't assign a specific topic. As with any college literature paper, your job is to use textual evidence to support a non-obvious claim about an issue that arises from your analysis of the assigned text.

I am asking that you consult academic journal articles for this paper. So pay special attention to avoiding all plot summary, character description, and filler like "it seems to me" and "another thing that I found interesting".

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at October 7, 2005 05:01 PM

oh didn't mean to say "what topics are you assigning." I guess i was looking more for what are you looking for in the first draft..I mean we've only really read 1 long text up to this point..I dont know, i think im still out of it..

Posted by: Lou Gagliardi at October 7, 2005 06:16 PM

The lit paper can be about 1 long text, about several shorter texts, or even (if you're really inspired) a single short text. I'd be happy to respond to your suggestions for topics.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at October 7, 2005 09:52 PM

Dr. Jerz,
I know we need to include references to a peer-reviewed article in our paper, but what about the actual work itself? Should we include sited quotes from the work we choose as well?

Posted by: AshleyHoltzer at October 12, 2005 12:48 PM
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