American Lit II (EL 267)

Course Overview

Welcome to EL 267, "American Literature 1915-Present."

The course website is located at I will update the online syllabus periodically, so a printout wouldn't be all that useful. The offical version of the syllabus is the online version (though I will notify you in advance of any significant changes -- I won't try to trick you by adding work or moving up deadlines).

Topics for today:

The front page of the blog only shows the main class topic and the main readings scheduled for that day. To get a full list of the lesson plan for any day, click on the date on the calendar.

Preview Ex 1-1
Preview Intro to Weblogs
In class: Informal written response.

Permalink | 24 Jan 2006 | Comments (0)

How does a poem mean?

How does a poet use language? Why are poems best when read aloud?

Permalink | 31 Jan 2006 | Comments (8)

Representations of Reality

Literary characters are not real people. There is no single "right" answer to a question such as, "Was Hamlet mad?"

There are, however, persuasive and not-so-persuasive answers, based on evidence gathered from the play itself, from historical records about how the character Hamlet was performed throughout history, what Shakespeare and his contemporaries thought about madness, how a royal son was expected to act towards his mother, how a wronged prince was supposed to respond to the murder of the king, etc.

But reading Hamlet doesn't by itself provide you with sufficient information to make arguments about the historical Danish characters whose story Shakespeare retold, or what Shakespeare and his contemporaries thought about the monarchy in general.

Reality vs. Representation

While historical facts, cultural context and biographical details can help us understand a literary work, in a literature survey course, the primary focus is on a line of intellectual enquiry that examines a claim about the literary text.

In this class, your thesis statement -- the main idea that you plan to support -- should be about one or more specific literary works, not about some aspect of life in general.

Note the difference between a specific claim about a literary work, a general claim about an issue that the work happens to touch on.

Middle school students should not be forced to read racially insensitive language. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one such book. It contains so many instances of a particularly offensive racial epithet that, despite the book's unquestionable importance in the American literary history, middle-school teachers should consider a a less controversial alternative.
(Not good --deals only superficially with the literary work, and focuses instead on issues that could be decided without any mention of Huckleberry Finn.)

The above might be a great topic for a sociology or education paper, but the the question of what age students should be in order to be permitted to read offensive language is not a literary topic. You could write a paper on this topic without having read or understood Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You could swap in different texts -- such as an Eddie Murphy stand-up comedy performance, a Saturday Night Live skit, or a hip-hop album -- and the argument would stay the same.

Because the racially-charged language of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an historically accurate representation of the speech that Samuel Clemens wished to document, the presence of racial epithets in the text should not overshadow the significance of the protagonist's personal growth towards an anti-slavery conviction. The attitudes described in the book are frequently racist, including attitudes conveyed by generally good characters such as Tom, and attitudes that Huck himself adopts in order to manipulate the people he encounters. The whole society described in the book is racist, and characters who were formed by and who interact with that society are realistically tainted by it, but the book itself is not racist.
(Good -- focuses intensely on the work itself, breaking it into parts and evaluating the interactions between those parts.)

The above paragraph introduces an argument about the literary work itself. Yes, issues such as historical accuracy, social context, and the author's intention will come into play, but to write a paper based on the above paragraph, an author would have to demonstrate the ability to read and carefully interpret the work under scrutiny.

The women in Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles" are dismissed and ignored by men who oppress them at every turn. This is typical of the treatment women endured in the late 19th century, and women were just beginning to stand up to it in the eary 20th century (when the play was produced). Analyzing the role women played in "Trifles," and comparing it to the progress women have made since then shows us just how far women have come.
(Not good -- "Trifles" is only introduced an example to prove a point the author wants to make about women's roles in society. The argument is about women's changing roles, not about the play Susan Glaspell wrote.)

Once again, the main argument in the above passage is not about the text itself, but about an issue that the text happens to mention. This paragraph introduces a comparison of today's culture to the culture depicted in the story. While it is important to understand how the culture that led to the creation of a particular work differs from the culture in which you are reading that work, you should understand that a work is a particular author's personal, creative, artistic representation of reality. Even when basing a story on a real historical event, authors leave out certain details, change the timeline, combine characters into composites, invent scenes, etc. All this is in the service of artistic truth, but it may stray far from the verifiable facts. Nobody wants to read stories about boring, ordinary people, so all literature is a distortion of some sort. Few farm women are married to husbands who are so cold that they strangle songbirds and send their otherwise meek and quiet wives into homicidal rages. It is therefore dangerous to use a fictional account of one incident to support an argument about what life was "really" like.

Sample Close Reading

In "Trifles," Glaspell establishes a fairly obvious connection between the dead canary and the formerly joyful Minnie Foster, whose personality changed after living thirty years as Mrs. John Wright; but Glaspell's mastery of symbolism is even more evident through her layered use of another prop that plays a role that is nearly as important as the canary. To the men, the sticky mess of fruit preserves is a sign that Minnie Wright was not a good housekeeper, yet at the same time they dismiss the emphasis that the suspect places on the status of her fruit. The fact that the women find one unbroken "bottle" of fruit and wash it off visually dramatizes the women's desire to defend Minnie Wright -- even before either of them has fully admitted their feelings out loud. While apples might suggest original sin, and peaches might suggest optimism, and lemons might suggest pessimism, Minnie is anxious about her cherries.

The cherry is a symbol of innocence and purity, as Mrs. Hale reminds us when she says, "I wish you'd seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang" (399). It is also a symbol of potential, but this marriage has not been fertile: "Not having children makes less work--but it makes a quiet house" (398). On a literal level, the fruit Minnie worked so hard to store up is ruined when the fire goes out and a cold snap causes the bottles to break. On a symbolic level, John Wright -- "[l]ike a raw wind that gets to the bone" -- is the coldness that slowly destroyed the promise of his wife's youth and beauty.

But the bottle of fruit serves an even more important function, just before the play's climax. Mrs. Hale, who blames herself for not being more friendly to Minnie, seeks the cooperation of Mrs. Peters, who is "married to the law" (400), but whose cooperation Mrs. Hale must secure if she is to hide the evidence (and thereby protect her neighbor from prosecution). Mrs. Hale has already destroyed some of the evidence -- the stitching that suggests the suspect may have been recently agitated. But Mrs. Peters has insisted, "The law has got to punish crime" (399) and "We mustn't -- take on" (400). Mrs. Hale, while bolder than Mrs. Peters, is still introduced as "disturbed" and moving "fearfully" (392), and throughout the play the women gain strength from each other. While Mrs. Hale is able to supply the background details necessary to suggest a course of action, she is not ready to take that course of action (and conceal the evidence) because she is not confident that Mrs. Peters will keep quiet. In order to test the resolve of Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Hale suggests that she (Mrs. Peters) tell a lie. "If I was you I wouldn't tell her her fruit was gone. Tell her it ain't. Tell her it's all right."

Mrs. Peters silently assents to the lie, and she begins relating to the bottle of cherries as if it were Mrs. Wright herself. The words Mrs. Peters speak attempt to diffuse the emotional impact of the moment ("My, it's a good thing the men couldn't hear us. Wouldn't they just laugh!" (400)), but her action -- carefully wrapping a petticoat (an undergarment) around the single remaining bottle of cherries -- illustrates her deep desire to protect what is left of Minnie Foster's dignity. Now that Mrs. Peters has agreed to tell a white lie in order to set Minnie's mind at ease, the next challenge comes naturally enough: will she act deliberately to hide the evidence? Only after Mrs. Peters makes an unsuccessful attempt to conceal first the box (which is too big for her bag) and then the bird (which she cannot bring herself to touch) does Mrs. Hale feel confident enough to act.

While the bird features strongly in the climax of the play, the plot requires the men not to know about the fate of the bird. For this reason, Glaspell needed an on-stage object that both the men and women could relate to, in order to indicate their attitudes towards the off-stage Minnie. Glaspell uses the cherries to mark the difference in attitude between the men and the women, and also to mark the growing solidarity among the women.

Note that the above example
  • does not talk about whether Mrs. Peters should have told Minnie Foster the truth
  • does not invent reaons for why Minnie Foster chose cherrie (she didn't choose that particular fruit, the dramatist did)
  • does not argue that Mrs. Peters should have been strong enough to force herself to pick up the dead bird
  • does not scold the men for being so chauvinistic
  • does not suggest that Minnie Wright should have killed her husband twenty years earlier
  • does not otherwise engage in speculation or wishful thinking to treat the fictional characters in this story as if they had lives of their own outside the limited scope of words that the author provided for us
  • nor does it list all the plot elements in chronological order,
  • does not introduce my story about the time my brother sucked a gerbil up a vacuum cleaner,
What does it do? It takes the fictional world of the play for what it is -- a truncated, abbreviated, limited sketch of only those details that the author chose to provide, and examines the effect the author has achieved.

Jack Lynch writes,

don't assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world � it's not something we can reliably look through. Often it's more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it.
To apply one of Lynch's other points to this text: don't assume that just because you've read Susan Glaspell's "Trifles" that you now know what life was really like for rural farm women about 100 years ago. If you're writing a paper about "Trifles," you can't use "Trifles" to support an argument about real people. (If you did, then you wouldn't be writing about "Trifles," you'd be writing about real people.)

One last note about writing. As I was writing the previous example, I wrote the following sentence, which I really like.

Mrs. Hale has the final line, and consistently conveys the author's point of view, but Mrs. Peters is the character who changes.
Maybe I'll use it sometime in the future. Rephrased as a question, it would make a great discussion starter. But it had nothing to do with the cherries, so I had to cut it from the example. Be ruthless about what belongs in your drafts and what belongs somewhere else.

Permalink | 2 Feb 2006 | Comments (0)

Poetry Cover Slam 1

We will spend class time listening to each other's oral interpretations and discussing the works in depth.

See the description of Ex 1-2b.

Permalink | 14 Feb 2006 | Comments (0)

Poetry Cover Slam 2

Continuing with Williams poems.

Permalink | 16 Feb 2006 | Comments (0)

From Tennis to Tango

A compare-and-contrast essay should be less like a tennis match and more like a tango.

Permalink | 18 Apr 2006 | Comments (0)

Formal Oral Presentations

Bring to class a study sheet for your classmates (see below for tips), and submit a copy of the study sheet to your instructor in class. In order to complete the Formal Oral Presentation assignment and earn a grade, complete the J-Web question set by 12 n

Update, 24 Apr: Sorry about that. I see that part of this entry was cut off. There actually won't be a set of J-Web questions, in part because I've already asked you to do some of those activities when I have you peer-review each others' papers. The only questions I really need to ask you are related to MLA style, and I'd actually rather do that informally during class, rather than create a whole J-Web unit just for that.

I am asking you to think of the oral presentation as a low-risk chance to push your own personal boundaries and try something new -- something that you don't know you'll be able to fit into a research paper.

Now as for the one-page study sheet. What to put on it?

You might consider some of the following, but only if you use them during your presentation:

  • Quotes from the literary works you want to discuss, or academic articles that offer definitions of important terms.
  • A pointer or objective from the course website or Writing about Literature that you would like the class to focus on when giving feedback
  • Timeline of key historical events leading up to the works' publication
  • Your thesis statement, as it has changed during your recent writing activities.
  • Questions that you want the class to address after your presentation.
  • A list of your personal educational goals for this paper. (What do you hope you are learning? What can you teach your peers?)
  • A list of research questions you haven't yet had time to invesigate, but that you think you might need to look into in order to make a strong paper. (Perhaps someone in the class has already started working in those areas.)
  • As we discussed in class the other day, sample final exam questions that relate to your ongoing work are as appropriate.

Please avoid "yes/no" questions, or simple questions such as "Do you agree with my thesis?" Your goal isn't to invite the class to agree with you, but rather to learn from the class where your thought processes might be improved as we move this paper into the final stages.)

Also, please avoid handing out an outline with general points such as "Introduction" and "Conclusion."

Permalink | 25 Apr 2006 | Comments (6)