History | Individuals in American History
J300 | 6346 | Thelen

Above section open to seniors only or by permission of instructor
Above section COAS intensive writing section

In this course we will explore how individuals have tried to make a
difference in larger events as they have lived their individual
lives.  How have individuals experienced and constructed
intersections of their intimate lives with the rhythms of
conventional units of historical analysis: nations, cultures,
classes, institutions?  How have individuals changed and been
changed by the larger “course of history”?

The topic of our inquiry stems from three assumptions: First, the
postmodern turn in scholarship has led us to interrogate traditions
of historical writing in which individuals were seen more or less as
examples of larger-scale phenomena like Mexican immigration or the
Democratic party or World War II.  Instead of assuming that
individuals are somehow examples of genders or classes or cultures
or events, we will explore just how they have (or have not)
connected the intimate rhythms of personal experience with larger-
scale ones.  How have they constructed their larger worlds as they
lived their everyday lives?  Why have they identified with family or
class or nation of humanity?  And we will explore how elites and
large-scale units, in truth, have sought to get individuals to
identify their personal experiences and narratives with those
leaders created for institutions, cultures, and public policies.

Second, the need to explore fresh perspectives for studying
history’s traditional concern the study of change and continuity has
become more urgent as the world has become more global.  The
widening and deepening movements of peoples, ideas, institutions,
and cultures across national boundaries have raised basic challenges
to traditional units of historical analysis; that nations are the
most natural or important points for people to identify with and
that national states are the most important means for people to act
collectively to shape their fates.  History grew up in the 19th
century to encourage people to think in nation-centered terms.  New
developments leave us with the opportunity, the necessity, to step
back and inquire just how well nations have and have not met the
needs of people.  And this course therefore returns to the starting
point, to individuals, to ask what they expected of collective and
public action as they tried to connect their personal lives to
larger phenomena.  We will look at what individuals have expected
for the nation and the nation state.

Third, one of the major themes of American life from the most
academic or philosophical “thinkers” to the most market-driven of
Hollywood producers has connected the fate or mission of the United
States as a nation with the empowerment of individuals and the
fulfillment of democratic promise.  Some of the most creative
American cultural and political theory and practice have grown up
around precisely these issues.  In this course we will read and
discuss some examples of this literature much of it recognizable
as “cannon” in American Studies as our sources for exploring how
individuals connect (and refuse to connect) their individual
identities and values and narratives to conflicts over change and
continuity in the larger society.

We will concentrate on several writings in each of three periods
when patterns in the larger world created special challenges and
forms for individuals as they related to the larger world.  The
heart of the course will be weekly discussions of the readings.
Students will keep journals in which they reflect on their
experiences, will write papers in which they analyze texts, and will
do a final project in which they extend the readings to an area of
their interest.

Readings will include essays by Emerson, Thoreau, Lincoln, Horace
Mann, Whitman, William James, Jane Addams, Lincoln Steffens, Marftin
Luther King, jr., books by Edward A. Ross, Ken Kesey, and Kim Chernin