This summer, I’ll be teaching the “American Novel to 1900” course for UC Davis English Department. The full information is on their course schedule page. The first three novels we’ll cover in the six-week class:
- The Female American, Winkfield (1767)
- The Coquette, Foster (1797)
- The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe (1838)
My goal is to incorporate something I’ve wanted to do since I saw Trinity College Professor and Heath Anthology of American Literature general editor Paul Lauter lecture on U.S. literature over a decade ago: student input into the choice of readings. Because books from this time period are mostly out of copyright and available online, I can do it without putting undue burden on the students.
On the first day, they’ll take a poll (what American “classics” they’ve read, what authors they think we should read in a college class) and then I’ll introduce parts of American literature that they may not be familiar with, including sentimental/domestic fiction, sensation and serialized novels, utopian fiction, dime novel western/invention/detective serial narratives, and more. Then we’ll vote on what novels to cover in the 2nd half of class.
As we do this, I’ll challenge them (or they’ll challenge each other) to pick a variety of material based on what they think is important. We’ll address inclusiveness, historical importance, etc. We’ll also cover things like how these novels were published and how writers or publishers conceived of what a “novel” was. Some things I’m particularly curious about:
- Will they gravitate toward “American Renaissance” antebellum works or toward Realist novels of the late 1800s?
- Are the books that were standard U.S. high school curriculum 20 years ago still entrenched? Have they all read Red Badge of Courage or The Scarlet Letter, for example? If not, what works have ascended to that often-dubious honor?
- Will anyone question the inclusion of a work (Female American) from before the U.S. was actually a nation?
- What novels have they already covered at the university level, perhaps even more than once?
I’m very much looking forward to it.