“So this is the little lady who started this great war."
— President Lincoln upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe,
the author of the bestselling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin
By the end of that great war — the American Civil War that is — nearly four million African-descended people had been liberated from slavery and over 600,000 Americans had died in battle. Economic and racial hostilities would continue to claim lives in mob violence and lynchings throughout the United States for years to come. This course proceeds from the premise that literature helps form our ideas about the world and, as such, has indeed affected the course of history in profound ways. Not all works of fiction are ascribed the power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin - which spawned a host of plays, games, toys, and films in addition to a war - but Stowe’s novel certainly was not the only creative response to the divisive issue of race in America. The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, celebrated this year by a special exhibit at the University of Michigan, provides an occasion to immerse ourselves in the culture — literary and otherwise — that surrounded this historic event.
Though Lincoln’s legendary opening line is both apocryphal and hyperbolic, it serves as a useful reminder of literature’s representational power. This course ascribes no directly causal line between novels and wars, but it does ask literature to share its perspectives on a decisive time in American history. You will use literary analysis to answer some of the following questions: What does it mean to write about race at such a critical political juncture? What themes dominate stories and novels that represent racial dynamics? How do white and black authors imagine race differently?
In addition to literary texts, this course will take advantage of the Proclaiming Emancipation Commemoration, which will include an exhibit of documents and artifacts at the Hatcher Graduate Library, many of which are unique to the William Clements Library collections and have never before been exhibited. The exhibit will serve as a the basis for a formal writing assignment.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl — Harriet Jacobs
Our Nig — Harriet Wilson
The Marrow of Tradition — Charles Chesnutt
Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain
Readings for this course are comprised primarily of novels and short stories, although I may assign a few (2-3) articles that offer additional historical and contextual information. In addition to the required novels you will read short stories by authors including Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Pauline Hopkins, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Thomas Nelson Paige, and Kate Chopin.
Some seats in this section are reserved for sophomores.