E270 – Introduction to American Literature

Credit Hours:

Course Level:

Semesters Offered:
Fall Spring Summer

Description: Description: This course investigates the body of writing known as “American Literature” from the era of European/indigenous encounter to about 1914. The main interest in this course is the literature itself, but the literature is studied by looking at the interplay between the writing and the historical contexts that surround it. Attention is paid to the many voices and traditions that contribute to writing in America. Sometimes this is done by pairing familiar and less familiar works and looking at the result. Sometimes works that have, over time, accumulated much cultural resonance are examined.

As an approved course in the III-B Arts and Humanities category of the All-University Core Curriculum, E 270 fulfills all five of the criteria for that category.

  1. The course covers foundational knowledge in the reading and interpretation of a variety of literary genres – fiction, poetry, essay, journals, and oral literature – over a wide range of historical periods, from the “discovery” of America to the present, and over a variety of cultural perspectives that have given rise to this literature: Native American, Afro-American, and White European (but with the additional recognition that none of these is an homogenous group). It introduces many of the basic formal elements and interpretive skills necessary to understanding literature. And it considers the relationship of literature to the changing historical contexts that give rise to it.
  2. Historically focussed as it is, E 270 enables the student to grasp some of the common fundamental issues that American literature from its beginning has dealt with and also with the changing focus and approach that characterize the literature of different historical moments. Thus readers will learn about both common underlying factors tying American literature together and distinguishing features that characterize, for example, the Puritans of the 17th century, and the Realists of the late 19th century.
  3. Students will engage in frequent written work and oral presentations, both formal and informal, thus honing their writing and speaking skills.
  4. Through the study of American literature, students will gain an understanding of both similarities they share with Americans of past eras or from different cultural contexts, and of the differences between them as historical and cultural circumstances change.
  5. The course helps students develop skills in reading, writing, speaking, and critical thinking, and also their abilities to work independently and collaboratively.

The course also fulfills the criteria for the III-D Historical Perspectives category of the All-University Core Curriculum. In order to do so, E 270 will begin with a simple premise: the literature written from the Anglo-American continent since the arrival of European immigrants in the seventeenth century has been preoccupied with the question of community. How is one made? What is its relation to nature? To other communities? How should human relations be governed and conventionalized? What is the individual’s responsibility to its members? This battery of questions will provide the thread that runs through this chronological study of American writing, highlighting at once continuities and significant transformations in the subjective “experience” of being “American” then and now (goal 1).

More specifically, the course will treat the literature as historical artifacts that contain in condensed form a record of the experience of history – in all its complexity and contradiction. To access this complexity, this course will expand the definition of “literature” by including autobiography, slave narratives, sermons, folk tales, and creation myths. The course offers insight into changing perspectives scholars/teachers use in selecting and presenting “American literature” (goal 2). In its dynamically changing syllabus and greater self-consciousness as to canon and methods of interpretation, E 270 will of necessity introduce students to and include them in controversial debates about how to narrate American history and what histories to narrate (goal 3). Over the course of the semester, students will be encouraged to recognize that these debates say as much about the current ideological climate as they do about the “object” of dispute (goal 4).

For E 270 to meet all of these objectives, it is necessary that students write much and often, including analytical essays on the assigned reading. This will establish two dialogues that are indispensable – one between the student and the historical artifacts, and one between the student and instructor. Class periods will also depend heavily on discussion, in both small and large groups, to enact as much as possible the multiplicity of perspectives that continue to animate American literary history (goal 5).