ENGLISH 270 - Introduction to American Literature
Fall 2020, Section 001 - Race and American Fiction
Instruction Mode: Section 001 is  Online (see other Sections below)
Subject: English Language and Literature (ENGLISH)
Department: LSA English Language & Literature
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Requirements & Distribution:
Waitlist Capacity:
May not be repeated for credit.
Primary Instructor:


To what extent does a focus on race offer us an encompassing view—of the American novel, of American literature, of American history as a whole? Such is the question that animates this course. We’ll investigate it by considering leading fictional works since the mid-19th century: Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855-6); Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901); selections from Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942) or Collected Stories (1950); Morrison’s Beloved (1987); and Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Since the reading consists mainly of writers who have achieved considerable critical acclaim, the class should help us gain familiarity with some major specimens of U.S. fiction—in this sense cutting against the invidious, and false, choice between artistry and commitment. We will also attempt to gain awareness of the various ways in which literature is made out of previous literature (e.g. Morrison’s debt to Faulkner) as well as out of life. What are the distinctively racially inflected literary antecedents of the novels we’re reading?

Contextual readings will include “The Declaration of Independence,” “The Constitution,” Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and “Second Inaugural Address,” and King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream.”

Primary attention will be given to three eras: the run-up to the Civil War, with emphasis on the struggle over slavery; the era of Jim Crow; and the aftermath of the Civil Rights era, sometimes referred to as the age of the New Jim Crow. But since most of the fictional works have a strong historical dimension, we’ll ask why a concern with the racial conflict of one’s own day so often leads to a resort to the past. And this question will open onto the broader one at the heart of the course: what does the study of literature enable us to see that is unavailable in any number of non-literary discourses (including the famous documents mentioned above)?

Thematically, we’ll look at the connections between race and a variety of other social issues: above all, religion, gender and sexuality, and social class. The goal is to see overlaps and contrasts, but also to evaluate the explanatory value of race. Formally, we’ll attempt to identify the logic, or purpose, of the different fictional subgenres exemplified on the reading list—realism, modernism, and postmodernism. Does a concern with race and ethnicity inflect fiction toward one or another of these modes, or inflect these modes in any consistent fashion? The ultimate aim is to develop a single perspective on these two apparently distinct sets of concerns.

Course Requirements:

Writing: 3 five-page papers; no exam.

Intended Audience:

Online-only students are welcome!

Class Format:

Exams: Synchronous and Online

Lectures: Synchronous and Online

Class Discussions: Synchronous and Online


ENGLISH 270 - Introduction to American Literature
Schedule Listing
001 (LEC)
TuTh 1:00PM - 2:30PM

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