L355 1964 WELLS
American Fiction to 1900

4:00p-5:15p TR (30) 3 cr.


In a very bad novel published in 1907, George Cary Eggleston suggested that all Americans—that “the whole world,” even—had benefited from the fact that the founding fathers had lived on large plantations sustained by slave labor: “Is not every man living under American institutions, or under the inspiration of those institutions in other lands . . . the better off because Washington and Jefferson and Madison and the rest had ease and leisure in which to ripen their minds and do the thinking that created this republic and its institutions?” The novel was titled Love Is the Sum of It All: A Plantation Romance, and it would not deserve to be featured in a description of a literature course at Indiana University except for the fact that (1) it was published almost fifty years after Emancipation and the end of the plantation system as a viable social and economic institution, and (2) Eggleston was not a southerner himself but rather a born-and-bred Hoosier.

In other words, Eggleston’s novel exemplifies the curious persistence and national pervasiveness of something called “the plantation romance”: a form of fiction that was remarkably popular in the nineteenth-century United States, especially during the post-Civil War period when many actual plantations fell into disuse and disrepair. We will explore in this course how and why U.S. writers invented and reinvented the plantation as a site of literary and cultural meaning throughout the nineteenth century. Beginning with several antebellum works that depict plantation life from different vantage points, we will eventually turn to the most important works in the plantation romance tradition: the large number of nostalgic works written by white southern romanticists after the Civil War. We will also read a number of fictional works less cheerful in their remembrances of plantation life, some of them written by white writers, others written by ex-slaves and their descendants.

The vast majority of the texts we will read will be short stories and novels published in the nineteenth century—such titles as John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn; William Gilmore Simms’ The Wigwam and the Cabin and Woodcraft; Edgar Alan Poe’s short stories; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Sarah Josepha Hale’s Liberia; Hannah Crafts’, The Bondswoman’s Narrative; Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon; Thomas Nelson Page’s In Ole Virginia; Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings and On the Plantation; Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales; Sherwood Bonner’s Dialect Tales; Maria Howard Weeden’s and Irwin Russell’s dialect poetry; George Washington Cable’s Old Creole Days; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson; Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; and Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman. We may also read one or more slave narratives or post-slavery memoirs in order to get of sense of how black writers were responding to plantation mythologies. And we will likely glance at at least two important works from the early twentieth century that refract the plantation tradition: William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. We will thus encounter a variety of fictional modes—sentimentality, realism, regionalism, gothicism, modernism—and come to recognize that, by writing about plantations, U.S. writers have long been addressing some of the more vexing questions that have confronted the nation: questions surrounding race, gender, and identity; sexuality; citizenship and democracy; inter-regional relations; and so forth.

Required work will likely include vigorous participation in class discussions, one or two short papers on individual texts, and one longer project/presentation involving outside research.