L352 2121 WELLS
American Literature 1865-1914

5:45p-7:00p TR (30) 3 cr.

Soon after the end of the Civil War, Mark Twain suggested that the recent conflict had been caused not by slavery, sectional politics, or economic differences but rather by the reading habits of white southerners. Twain blamed the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott for having filled the heads of southerners with various “windy humbuggeries”—puerile fantasies about chivalry, solidarity, heroic ancestries, and rebelliousness—that he believed had inspired the South to secede and thus made Scott “in great measure responsible for the war.”

Twain was joking, of course, but his remarks give at least some indication of how seriously Americans came to take their literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Literature was supposed to cure society’s ills, consolidate feelings of national unity, foster civic virtues, even prevent wars. Writers were thus enjoined to help resolve a number of crises that beset the nation during these years: crises surrounding sectional reunion, national expansion and imperialism, immigration, class conflict, industrialization, women’s rights, and the redefinition of the category of “citizen” to include non-white individuals. So, too, were writers criticized, even censored, when their works were thought to have a negative effect on society. Theodore Dreiser would see Sister Carrie suppressed because it didn’t punish immorality and contained bad language. Kate Chopin would find her publishing prospects diminished because of the scandalous, sexual subject matter of The Awakening. And George Washington Cable would be told repeatedly by his editors to write about the local color of his native Louisiana but to quit paying so much attention to its culture of racial violence.

In this course we will read these and other writers in order to get a sense of how the literature and the history of the postbellum United States intersect. We will look at how historical developments shaped literary texts, and, taking somewhat seriously Twain’s joke that a novelist could start a war, how literary texts shaped history. Among the other writers we may read are Frances Harper, Ambrose Bierce, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Henry James, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Dean Howells, Jack London, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The reading load will be fairly intensive, and students will be expected to participate actively in class discussions. Graded work will likely include two papers, frequent reading quizzes, and a presentation based on outside research.