Tomorrow, my ENG122 course, American Literature and Culture, will being at the University of Bergen. The course is set up with lectures (about 150 students) and seminars (about 30 students). There are four instructors, and each instructor delivers about 3-4 lectures each throughout the course of the semester. As well, each instructor has two of the seminar sessions. I will be presenting the four lectures over the course of the semester: “Introductory. From Colonial to Revolutionary America: Winthrop and De Crèvecœur,” Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. For each lecture, I am planning to construct a PowerPoint. So, today, I would like share with you my presentation for the first lecture and walk you through my thought process and choices for the material.
Since the course starts with John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity and Letter III from John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer, I decided to frame my lecture around a few important questions that would carry through the rest of the semester: How have writers defined what it means to be an American?; What exactly do we mean by American literature?; How are these texts/authors in constant conversation with other authors and the present? These are all questions that I have written about, at one time or another, on this blog, and for me, they are some of the foundational questions we need to think about when approaching survey courses such as this one because they encompass a wide range of topics.
At the start of the lecture, I will address Winthrop’s longing for the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a “city upon a hill” for England to look to. I follow this up with Ronald Reagan’s final speech from the White House in 1989 when he uses the same phrase to describe America and its international image. Politicians from Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and others have used the phrase, and it’s important to consider why this phrase is important and continues to hold so much sway within the American cultural psyche.
With de Crèvecœur, I will focus on his image of the melting pot by using “The Mortar of Assimilation-and the One Element that Won’t Fit” (1889). In this image, we see Lady Liberty mixing a bowl of immigrants with a spoon that reads “equal rights.” However, an Irish immigrant sits on the edge of the bowl wielding a knife. While the image serves as representation of the American “melting pot,” it also highlights the ways that some became eliminated from integrating into the body politic. Looking at de Crèvecœur’s words, he does the same thing because everyone in his “melting pot” hails from a European country. He does not include Africans, Native Americans, or other people groups. This is important as we move forward and think about the founding documents of the nation.
The language and words used by officials to incorporate or eliminate individuals from the American body politic. De Crèvecœur does this in Letters from an American Farmer, and the Founding Fathers do the same when constructing the foundational documents of the nation. Here, I use Jill Lepore to highlight the importance or language and the printed word and their impact on society. Lepore writes, “If war is, at least in part, a contest for meaning, can it ever be a fair fight when only one side has access to these perfect instruments of empire, pens, papers and printing presses?”
Immediately after this, I move to Jefferson’s oft quoted phrase from the Deceleration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Who are the “men” who have been “created equal”? Does this include all men? Women? From here, I move into discussions of women in the colonies and the early republic by using Puritan writers such as Anne Bradstreet and Mary Rowlandson before quoting Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband John were she demands that he keep the women in mind when drafting the Declaration of Independence. I could add Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriett Jacobs, Lydia Maria Child, and more; however, due to time constraints, I did not add any slides about them. I plan to mention them.
Next, I move on to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. The course ends with this text, and I think it serves as a good way to show students the ways that these texts are in constant conversation with one another. In the quote that I use, Coates circles back, at the beginning, to he power of language and the written word and how it subjugates individuals. Along with this, it moves the lecture towards the institution of slavery and its continued effects in America.
Following Coates, I turn to Frederick Douglass’ What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? and specifically the passage where he quotes Marc Antony from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I have written about this section before, and I find it important because it works to address two of the questions I ask at the outset of the lecture. It shows how literary texts are in conversation with one another and it shows how the Founding Fathers constructed their definition of what it means to be an American. Pulling on the same thread, I turn to Solomon Northup and the ways he pushes back against Jefferson’s idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and also extends Douglass’ condemnation of the myths surrounding America’s formation. Again, I could draw from numerous authors here from David Walker, Hosea Easton, James Baldwin, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Alice Walker, and more, but time does not allow for that.
The next section moves into an examination of how we define American literature. Again, I have written about this extensively before. I begin with Sydney Smith’s question from 1820: “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” Smith’s question paves the way for what is to follow from Theodore Dwight’s 1825 comments in the preface to Sarah Kemble Knight’s The Journal of Madame Knight to William Apess, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman.
I conclude the lecture by moving forward to Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” (1883) and Sui Sin Far’s Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian (1909). Lazarus’ poem presents America as a welcoming space for all who are tired and poor and longing for freedom. America becomes the shining “city upon a hill” that Winthrop envisioned. Far’s discussion, though, asks us to question the very nature and meaning of borders and nationality. What do these things even mean? What is their role? They are created by pens and words, becoming forms of control for those in power.
Concluding the lecture, I am using Propaganda’s “It’s Not Working,” a song that chronicles the African American experience in America. Throughout, Propaganda provides a detailed list of the ways that America has failed African Americans, and by extension, I would say other groups as well. In using this song, I hope to highlight for students that the issues and discussions that began with Winthrop and de Crèvecœur continue today.