This summer, I’m teaching UC Davis’s “American Novel to 1900” class. I used the class to try something I’d always wanted to do–something scholar Paul Lauter did while developing the uber-inclusive Heath Anthology of American Literature–namely, asking students to prioritize course content and choose their own selections.
After all, six weeks to cover 100+ years of national novels can’t begin to cover everything, so what should we read? And just as importantly, what do we have to leave out?
Before I provide the list, I’ll note a few things. In an anonymous preliminary poll, students didn’t seem overly worried that they might miss books they’d been told were “great works.” Only two students mentioned wanting to read the most famous works of the era (and one of them they wanted to read those just to “avoid looking stupid” when asked if they’d read something). At least 10% of the respondents mentioned that they wanted to read authors from diverse backgrounds (several of them specifically mentioning “books by people of color” as a priority).
After the poll, I gave them a list of about 15 books and some short introductions about each one. Here is the final reading list, with the ones they chose :
- The Female American, “Unca Eliza Winkfield” (pseudonym) (1767)
- The Coquette, Hannah Webster Foster (1797)
- The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Edgar Allan Poe (1838)
- Benito Cereno, Herman Melville (1855)
- Ruth Hall, Fanny Fern* (1855)
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (1876)
- Imperium in Imperio, Sutton E. Griggs* (1899)
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum* (1899)
As you can see, Fern, Griggs, and Baum were the winners. Some other thoughts:
A) They reeeeally wanted to read Wizard of Oz. That one received the most votes. It covers the “children’s literature that adults read” space occupied today by the likes of Harry Potter and company, though I suspect some students just thought it’d be a fun, easy read.
B) I added the novella Benito Cereno so that we’d have at least one representative from Mattheissen’s “American Renaissance” conceptualization of C19 literature.
C) Had I let them vote on it, I’m pretty sure Tom Sawyer would’ve been rejected. A fair number had read both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer (the former didn’t surprise me, but the latter did). The ones who’d read it universally disliked it. However, I was in Hannibal this summer and have a lot to share about the book. I also suspect that whatever my next long-term academic project is, Tom will be involved.
D) They found the idea of a secret Black republic from Sutton Griggs’s novel amazingly compelling. Several students are writing papers on it, even though we haven’t got to it in class discussion yet.
E) I had to pick the first three novels, mostly so we could start class and people could do advanced reading for summer session. The Female American is fun because it’s a gender-bent Robinson Crusoe narrative, and forces us to consider that there might be “American Literature” or an “American Identity” before the U.S. was officially formed. I’ve taught The Coquette and Pym before.
F) Personally, I was pulling for John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird)’s Joaquin Murieta novel. It’s a good example of popular narrative with a Latino hero written by a Cherokee author. But Baum won. Democracy in action, I suppose. (That said, we have numerous Native American characters–particularly heroic “half-Indian” characters in Female American and Pym, and the unfortunate villain in Tom Sawyer).
G) If the poll I gave is to be believed, The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, and The Awakening are the most frequently taught C19 novel in high schools. Other former stalwarts–The Red Badge of Courage, Daisy Miller–barely manage a blip of recognition.