LIT331 - Some Final Notes
We have arrived at the end of our course and I would like to leave you with some
final notes on the texts we have read. Looking back, we see a general distrust of
the European influence and of modern industrial society.
What, then, is literature for? How does it become instrumental in the making of an
In the texts we read, we viewed the function of literature and how it contributed to
the creation of an American identity. How? Literature expresses the values of a
society. We read literature to get at culture, and vice versa. In other words, the text
bears the social milieu it springs out of.
We explored what scholars also referred to as an American cultural mythology --
a tradition that first took place through writing (historical and political) and later
through the literary (the imaginative such as fiction), and that recorded the mind
and the psyche of a fast changing country. The authors we read either celebrated or
condemned what they saw. Most had a deep desire to make things better and
searched for something more or for something else. And so you may want to think
of how each text, in its own unique way, represents the struggle for something new
and something other. Reading these texts is not only about seeing these
experiences, time periods, cultures, emotions, and events unfold. It is also about
seeing each author's effort to come up with new ways of narrating compelling
experiences unfold through formidable historical, political, and literary periods in
This is what the texts gave voice to:
- The birth of an American identity and cultural ideology were marked
by the Puritan origin of the American self.
- The story of the American literature moved from a sacred, urban, town-based
culture to the creation of a true American identity born out of the country, the
pastoral, and a more secular experience. In Crèvecoeur, the American farmer is
depicted as a kind of prototypical America.
- We began with the literature of settlement in which barbary and civilization go
hand in hand. The explorers were writers sending letters back to their patrons. The
age of discovery was also the age of the text. The Europeans brought a discourse of
wonder to the New World, a language of conquest and discovery, a genre of
- Puritan innate depravity haunted the literature of settlement. Holding the Bible
as the highest work of literature, Puritan discourses were limited to sermons,
histories, and biographies. Fiction, at the time, was nothing more than a collection
- The idea of the American emerged more clearly with Emerson's call for a
cultural and literary independence from Europe, a spirituality unmediated by
organized religion, and a belief in one's thought (self-reliance). The literature of the
past is inscribed and noble, but each age must write its own books. For Emerson,
the soul is forever changing, in contrast with the Puritan belief that man is born
damned. Emerson is considered the prophet of authentic American individualism,
uniqueness, and non-conformity. Transcendentalism was built on an
impoverished Enlightenment. Remember that the Enlightenment viewed the
world as knowable, rational, and comprehensible. This had far-flung effects, one of
them being the idea that politics and the human psyche could be understood with
almost a mathematical-type precision.
- An enfeebled Enlightenment also gave way to Romantic modes of thinking,
promoting imagination and inward life, separate from all other disciplines (such as
history or philosophy). What this means is that the novel too can teach us
something, and can do so in a more compelling way. Irving used history and
transformed it into literary prestige. The introduction of literature destabilized the
historical discourse. In Irving and Thoreau, nature is linked to an exploration of
the imaginative (the literary) away from a bustling world.
- Nature is also a world full of magic and full of the supernatural. It is a world in
which things that are wrong manifest themselves in an unsettling way.
Unlike Stowe for whom there was no deeper psychology and only Christian
salvation, Poe and Hawthorne used the Gothic (a deeper psychology) to probe and
explore man's depravity and inward torment. In Gothic texts, the woods are a
psychologized landscape in which features of the wild are likened to a character's
mind. What civilization covers up, ultimately emerges in the wilderness. One could
say that while Emerson looked to the Heavens, Poe and Hawthorne looked down
We ended with Hawthorne's haunting and haunted tale of sin, vengeance, and
passion set amid a culture of spectatorship and punishment. Hawthorne called The
Scarlet Letter a romance in order to distinguish it from the novel which tended to
mostly depict domestic life. You may not agree, but it is often thought of as a love
story, albeit a tragic one.
"I would prefer not to"
Poe's House of Usher
"The writer spoke of acute bodily illness--of a mental disorder which oppressed him."
“There is only one thing that every individual can do—they can see to it that they feel right.” "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Chapter XLV.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin", Chapter IX.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
Henry David Thoreau
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“Hope” is the thing with feathers - (314) BY EMILY DICKINSON
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Emily Dickinson House
Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself and you shall have the sufferage of the world."
Essays, Series I (Self-Reliance)