English 53R: Advanced Research Topics in U.S. Literature

Schmidt. Spring 2014. Swarthmore College. A limited-enrollment, research-oriented colloquium for students who have done well in a previous U.S. literature course and would like to do advanced work. For the first part of the semester we will focus on readings and research materials chosen by the professor, to learn some basic methods and theory relevant for contemporary archival research using print and online resources. Later in the semester students will be able to propose, design, and present their own research project to the class. Students will conclude the course by writing a research thesis on a topic of their choice approved by the professor; they will also write a short paper on the earlier materials.

Selected authors and topics of focus for spring 2014: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather (My Ántonia and the newly published Selected Letters); a new biography of Hemingway read in conjunction with selected texts, including selected stories and The Old Man and the Sea; and an examination of two classic nineteenth-century slave narratives (or perhaps more accurately, “freedom” narratives) by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs with late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century “neo-slave narratives,” fictional texts that revise and rethink the meanings of this important genre in U.S. writing. For more information on these topics, see below.

Prerequisite: Normally, completion of English 52 (either section), English 53, or English 71D (“The Short Story in the U.S.”), or an equivalent mid-level course covering U.S. or colonial literature taught by one of my colleagues in the Swarthmore English Literature department. Enrollment limited to 15. If more students apply than can be accepted, admission will be determined by a student’s overall record of achievement in Swarthmore English courses, especially those in U.S. literature. More details are below.


We’ll spend about 2 weeks on each of the “modules” or topics below. In the remaining 4 weeks of the semester, we’ll explore some other research methods relevant to the “digital Humanities” and students will begin their own research topics.

• We’ll read selected major poems by Whitman and Dickinson then investigate the Whitman and Dickinson digital archives using those poems as a focus and grounding-point, exploring how to apply a vast array of digital materials (including much unpublished work by the authors, selected critical materials, etc.) to the interpretation of poems. We’ll also discuss issues of digital archive design, from organization and presentation to questions of whether digital materials change the fundamentals of reading and interpretation (and, if so, how and why and whether this is a good thing).

• We’ll read one of Cather’s masterpieces, My Ántonia (1918), then explore recent criticism on this novel and the resources newly made available on the Willa Cather Archives online. We’ll also take advantage of the fact that Cather’s Selected Letters (2013) have finally been published, while exploring some of the controversies connected to Cather’s will, critical commentary on the content of the letters, and other topics.

Hemingway’s Boat, a fine new biography by Paul Hendrickson, will be explored in conjunction with selected stories and The Old Man and the Sea, the latter written during Hemingway’s time in Cuba after he purchased and fished using his beloved new boat named Pilar. We’ll consider the possibilities and dangers of using biographical material to interpret literature, or literature to interpret the life of its author.

• We’ll study excerpts from Douglass’ famous 1845 Narrative, plus Jacobs’ classic Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861). Then in week 2 of this module each student will read a critical essay on the postmodern narrative genre and one contemporary example of this writing, giving a report on their reading to the class. Our focus will be on how to give a cultural explanation for why an ancient genre, such as the slave narrative or the Gothic novel, is revised and reinterpreted in our own time. What about that genre continues to appeal or seem relevant? What is retained, what changed, what reworked? How is it being read, misread, and reinterpreted—and why?
Possible texts from which each student will choose one for further study include the following. More possibilities will be added to the list at a later date.

Gayl Jones, Corregidora (1975)
Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984)
Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose (1986)
Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
Charles Johnson, The Middle Passage (1990)
Lorene Cary, The Price of a Child (1995)
James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (2013)
critical essay: introductory chapter, A. Timothy Spaulding, Re-Forming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative (Ohio State Univ. Press, 2005)

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