recent courses

American Nobodies.  The antebellum era of American literature (1820-1860) is generally thought to produce strong, solitary individuals. One imagines Ralph Waldo Emerson exhorting self-reliance, Henry David Thoreau praising solitude at Walden Pond, and Frederick Douglass refusing a master other than himself. Yet alongside such famous images, writers of the period also experimented with, as Emily Dickinson puts it, being nobody. Being nobody could mean slipping out of one’s life to watch it from the outside, or finding oneself mysteriously doubled, or conceiving of the self as a deeply passive structure, created by external forces and events. We will study both traditions—the production of somebody and the production of nobody—with emphasis on the less familiar latter strain. We will concentrate on closely reading quotations in order to discover how literary texts propose unusual models for selves in general and American selves in particular.

Individuals vs. Systems.  American writers of the late nineteenth century rarely wrote tales of heroes and heroines transcending their circumstances. Instead, writers worked to document the various systems—social, biological, and economic—that shape and even determine human behavior. This course studies the philosophies that guided this literary trend, as well as the developing technologies—such as photography, elevators, and department stores—that transformed the work of representation. We will read in order to ask: Can a person’s love conquer all? What is the power of one individual to resist oppression? Do we control systems, or are we at their mercy?

Henry James and the Story of the Mind.  In 1881, Henry James created literary history with The Portrait of a Lady: it was the first novel to contain an entire chapter in which nothing happens—except that the main character, Isabel Archer, thinks. This course will look backward and forward from this moment in James’s career to examine how his representations of mind and body develop and evolve. We’ll be guided by James’s cast of adventuring ladies—from the American flirt in Venice, Daisy Miller, to the righteous ghost-seeing governess of The Turn of the Screw, to the two women sharing one lover in The Golden Bowl—as we study psychology and narrative from the 1870s to the 1910s.

Literary Theory.  The word theory refers, via its etymology, to the act of seeing. All literary theories are thus ways of seeing: of seeing texts and of seeing the world. Our primary goal will be to see with theories that have been influential to the study of literature—to learn where they focus, how they interpret, and what they offer. We will examine the mind and the economy, art and language and advertising, narrative and sex and nation and gender and tradition. Because the theories we study will be challenging rather than intuitive, we will have to rethink our assumptions and beliefs, and, often, to unsettle them. We will do so not merely to be contrary, but to open ourselves to seeing more.

Truth, Violence, and Story.  Unhealed wounds, lifelong scars, bodies lost and recovered: the texts we will read in this course contain violent imagery. Yet they are not all graphic exposes. Instead, our texts approach experiences such as war and genocide, murder and suicide by crafting unconventional stories—stories that are farcical and funny, stories that keep starting rather than ending, stories that lie in order to tell the truth, stories that omit crucial information. By studying these seemingly confounding forms, we will come to understand the complexities of narrating violent events. We will focus on learning to analyze narrative structures and to write articulately about evasive elements such as uncertainties, gaps, and silences.

Cross-Examining the Witness.  We are all witnesses: so says the Nike corporation. But what does it mean to be a witness? How and why has witnessing become celebrated as a universal activity? This course will address these questions through the differing lenses of literary, historical, and legal studies. Students will complete a research project that entails analyzing first-hand testimonies as well as critical scholarship about an event of their choosing.


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