English | American Literature 1800-1900
L653 | 24480 | Fleissner

1:00p – 2:30p TR


American literature in the decades after the Civil War has long been
associated with realism, regionalism, and naturalism, genres
understood as engaging directly with the rapidly shifting social
landscape of their era—with developments such as urbanization,
industrialization, immigration, labor unrest, and consumerism.  Due
to this presumed close fit between realist literature and the
history of its day, late nineteenth-century American fiction became
a subject of unprecedented scholarly interest during the rise of new-
historicist criticism in the 1980s and ‘90s.  One of this course’s
aims is thus to introduce students both to the standard
understandings of realism and its offshoots, and to the claims of
historicist scholarship more generally, a critical approach that
arguably continues to dominate nineteenth-century American studies
along with many other literary fields.

At the same time, the class will consider some challenges to the
historicist viewpoint from both present-day critics (such as Charles
Altieri and Joan Copjec) and thinkers from the period in question
(such as Nietzsche and, to some extent, Henry Adams).  Most
significantly, we will ask about ways in which turn-of-the-century
American literary works themselves were actively engaged in thinking
through alternatives to the linear, positivist conceptions of time
bequeathed to them by nineteenth-century historiography.  Where
historicist criticism has taken Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the
Pointed Firs to task for a nostalgic escape from historical
realities, for example, we will ask whether nostalgia might also be
understood as a legitimate posture from which to critique the self-
understandings of the present moment.

Recent work on turn-of-the-century African-American texts in
particular, often from a psychoanalytically inflected perspective,
has emphasized their Gothic or tragic dimensions and thus the ways
in which they resist being read simply according to a realist,
sociohistorical paradigm.  After reading some representative
examples of realist, regionalist, and naturalist fiction—most likely
by Jewett, William Dean Howells, and Frank Norris—we will thus turn
to some of these more recently rediscovered works (by such writers
as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, W. E. B. Du Bois, and
Pauline Hopkins) and inquire into how they might change our critical
commonplaces about this era as a whole.  We will also ask related
questions about the protomodernist stylistic experimentation of
writers such as the late Henry James.  In all cases, the primary
texts will be read in conjunction with influential scholarly work
from the field as well as relevant theoretical materials (by such
writers as Susan Stewart, Raymond Williams, James Snead, Anne Cheng,
Slavoj Zizek, Ranjana Khanna, Paul Gilroy, and Eve Sedgwick).

Requirements for the class will include active participation in
discussion, presentations, and short writing assignments leading up
to a final project, either a conference-length paper or a review
essay, of about 10 pp.