American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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Shakespeare in a Log Cabin (Random Thoughts from a New Semester)

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Production photo for The Gladiator

Production photo for The Gladiator

I’m teaching a class this fall with the inherited title “American Romantics.” I have no idea what that actually means, but I’ve never been a letter of the law kind of fellow, so I’m approaching this course as a mixed-genre survey, not limiting myself to any single period style. Assuming that Romanticism is a style — I find these kinds of terms perplexing. Myself, I like a course name easily explained on the first day of class. American Vulgarians would be just about perfect.

Anyway, even Romanticists now teach and write about the entire period, so my approach is probably more doctrinaire than antinomian, even for those who find the label “American Romantics” meaningful. Or still meaningful, since it did hold sway for a generation. But no longer than that! Nineteenth-century American literature has never had a stable syllabus. Which is one of the things I like about it.

My own tendency has been to shift focus from a small circle of writers to a small number of decades, though a 15-week semester is far too short to accommodate more than a few writers anyway. But I try. That is, I try to give “period” precedence over “author.” A very slight precedence, one that is hardly sufficient for overcoming the vast precedence authors assume in our imaginations.

To bring decades alive, without letting history crowd out every other consideration — it’s hard! But one method I’ve found productive is using my students’ own preconceptions as a guide. Basically, we start with a speculative model, then read and research with an eye toward improving it. This time, for example, my students volunteered that antebellum writers (as they imagined them) were an urban, educated elite out of touch with the rural and largely illiterate majority. A hypothesis we’ll be testing throughout the semester, so I won’t say too much about it here. But since I did point the class toward the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser (a useful site for following through on one’s intuitions), let me offer a small factual correction to their characterization. According to the 1840 census, the first to include data about education, the ability to read and write was far more widespread than my students guessed. Here are the figures for Maine, which is where I teach: Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Ben Friedlander

September 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm