Undergraduate English Courses

358:341 Antebellum American Literature

01 MTH2   CAC 17168    IANNINI     MU-204

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put forward a provocative thesis about the relationship between democracy and literary form. “Taken in its entirety,” he proposed, “literature in democratic centuries cannot present the image of order, of regularity, of science, and of art as in aristocratic times; in it, form will ordinarily be found neglected and sometimes scorned. Style will often show itself bizarre, incorrect, overloaded, and soft, and almost always bold and vehement . . . an uncultivated and almost savage force will reign in thought.” Moving from initial revulsion to begrudging admiration, Tocqueville’s ambivalence about this revolution in literary form is palpable, and reflects his ambivalence about certain key contradictions within nineteenth-century American culture more generally: between individualism and social conformity (or what he called the despotism of public opinion), urbanization and the worship of nature, religiosity and market values, the ideal of freedom and the practice of slavery. This course will explore the implications of Tocquevile’s claim by reading deeply and widely in American literature from roughly 1830 to 1860, the period when, as many scholars argue, a classic American literature first emerged. How does the literature of the period, we will ask, address the contradictions of its historical moment through its radical experiments with form? Readings will include works by Poe, Melville, Dickinson, Douglass, Stowe, Whitman, Hawthorne, and others.