Assigned Readings Essay

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American Literature

Listen to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God preached. Discuss in the discussion group.

Jonathan Edwards gives us a perfect example of the Calvinist beliefs of the Puritan settlers in early New England. Edwards studied theology at Yale University -- where today there is still a dormitory named after him -- but then became a noteworthy preacher in the Great Awakening, which exhorted an entire generation to renew their Christian faith. Edwards' skill in preaching lies in using literary imagery to get across abstract theological concepts. Calvinist theology believes in "total depravity" -- in other words, because of Adam and Eve eating the apple, human beings are fallen, and stained with "original sin." The most memorable image in Edwards' sermon -- the image of the spider being held over a fiery pit -- is meant to be a metaphor to enable the listener to imagine how God feels about sinful humans before throwing them into the fires of Hell.

Read about St. Jean de Crevecoeur and What is an American? Post to the discussion group.

Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur was one of the first writers to identify himself as an American: he was born in France, emigrated to America in 1755, and published his "Letters from an American Farmer" in 1782. Crevecoeur is, to a certain extent, providing context for the American Revolution in "What is an American?" The American Revolution had taken place to "liberate" North America from the British empire, yet as Crevecoeur points out, not all of those living in North America were of British extraction. In some sense, the idea of American "freedom" is what Crevecoeur is describing here: he explains to the reader that those who emigrated to America have to allegiances to the countries left behind, which he sums up with the Latin motto "ubi panis ibi patria" -- this translates to "wherever you find your bread, there you find your homeland."

3: Read about Phillis Wheatley and Philip Freneau and find their poetry online. Whose do you like better and why? Post to the discussion group.

Although Phillis Wheatley is historically the more important poet -- as a rare example of an African-American writing in the eighteenth century -- Philip Freneau is probably closer to contemporary reading tastes. In particular, Freneau's "The House of Night" is not very different from contemporary horror writing. If Stephen King wrote poetry, it might very well sound like Freneau's "House of Night":

Let others draw from smiling skies their theme,

And tell of climes that boast unfading light,

I draw a darker scene, replete with gloom,

I sing the horrors of the House of Night. (Freneau, stanza 3)

Although "horror poetry" is not a common genre nowadays, this is what Freneau is writing here. It feels more relevant in the twenty-first century than Wheatley's polite and formal religious poetry.

4: Read about Benjamin Franklin and The Way to Wealth, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America and To the Royal Academy of Farting. Post to the discussion group.

Benjamin Franklin is an excellent example of America's relationship to the Enlightenment. Perhaps the best way of understanding this is through Franklin's humor piece "To the Royal Academy of Farting." In an era of scientific advances -- and it is worth recalling that Franklin himself was responsible for a number of scientific discoveries and inventions -- this humorous essay is intended to parody the style of scientific papers. It is also worth recalling that the publication and dissemination of essays is precisely how Franklin received his education -- he did not attend a university, but instead worked in a print-shop. This meant that, in practice, scientific knowledge was available to anyone who could read -- and indeed Franklin's efforts to create free libraries (such as the one he founded in Philadelphia) meant to extend a readership even to people who might not be able to afford books. This is a democratic idea of education, and thus the object of humor in the "Royal Academy of Farting" -- which is the pretentious or snobbish attitude toward science -- matches up with Franklin's democratic ideals. This is worth considering in the age of the Internet -- this could serve as a means of disseminating ideas at almost no cost, but nowadays the system of colleges and universities is believed to be necessary. But we could see a parallel to Franklin's ideals about knowledge and enlightenment in some Internet optimists -- such as Peter Thiel, an Internet entrepreneur who is now offering large grants to young people who would prefer to pursue (Franklin-style) their own intellectual projects without attending a university. Whether this can work nowadays when colleges and universities have such institutional strength is a good question, though -- even if Ben Franklin didn't have to attend a university when he was young, he did manage to found a university (the University of Pennsylvania) when he was older and established.

5: Read Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Post to the discussion group.

Both of these stories by Washington Irving ask American readers to consider that, although the United States was relatively new as a country in the early 19th century, it nonetheless had two centuries of history (and therefore folklore). Irving deliberately invokes the early Dutch settlers of the Hudson valley -- with names like "Van Winkle" and "Van Brunt" and "Van Tassel" -- as a way of invoking a culture that was already vanishing in this time period, when "New Amsterdam" had already been renamed "New York." Both of these stories reminded Americans in the early decades of the 19th century that America was still a place with a history: the headless horseman is, of course, a ghost summoned up from recent history, and Rip Van Winkle is (in his own way) a ghost from even farther back in time before the American Revolution. Irving published "Sleepy Hollow" less than 50 years after the Declaration of Independence -- but in some sense, the subject of these stories seems to be America's inferiority complex that, as a country, it lacked history. Irving tries to show that America does have history.

6: Read Young Goodman Brown and Ethan Brand. Post to the discussion group.

Hawthorne's stories back to the seventeenth century as a way of offering historical pictures of New England to nineteenth-century readers. In some sense, we can imagine both "Young Goodman Brown" and "Ethan Brand" as a fiction-writer's attempt to get inside the psychology of people who listened to preachers like Jonathan Edwards. By Hawthorne's day, New England was no longer famous for strict Calvinist Puritans -- if anything, New England preachers of Hawthorne's time were more likely to be obsessed with Abolitionism than Calvinist theology. Hawthorne is not only looking back at his own family tree -- an ancestor of his had been mixed up in the Salem Witch Trials -- but also at the history of American religious belief. And in some sense, Hawthorne is appealing to a modern novelist's sense of psychology, while studying a time period that lacked such a time period -- in 21st century terms, Young Goodman Brown's problem would be called paranoia. But Hawthorne carefully depicts that psychology in terms that would be intelligible to the Puritans -- it is a story about literal belief in the Devil, for readers that probably no longer literally believed in the Devil.

7: Read The Minister's Black Veil. Post to the discussion group.

In "The Minister's Black Veil" Hawthorne is pursuing different objectives at the same time. On the one hand, he based the story on an actual legend from seventeenth-century New England -- in this sense, his story is an artist's rendition of American folklore, not unlike Washington Irving in "Sleepy Hollow." But at the same time, the legend itself is one which invites questions about the religious beliefs of the early Puritans. Hawthorne offers the story of the minister and his black veil to readers who would be more interested in viewing the story psychologically than religiously.

8: Read The Raven and Annabel Lee. Post to the discussion group.

Poe utilizes the pure music of poetic language to pursue the idea of a lost love. Both "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" explore the idea of the death of a beautiful young woman -- Poe had notoriously written, in a work of nonfiction, that "the death of a beautiful woman…is the most poetical subject in the world." (This would come as a surprise to most American poets who came after him, including Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson). But the irony is that these poems are memorable for other reasons -- we do not remember the "lost Lenore" but the bird which, metaphorically, stands for the impossibility of reclaiming the past. And Annabel Lee seems more like an evocation of a lost childhood than a lost love -- Poe seems more like he is writing an elegy for youth itself, rather than for the young woman…[continue]

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