21:352:223 Survey of American Literature

H. Ehrlich
Office: Hill 521

Class web page is http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~ehrlich/223
Instructor's email is ehrlich@andromeda.rutgers.edu

352:223 Survey of American Literature
Course Description [223_fa06_d.html]

This is the first semester of a year-long survey of American Literature, covering the period from the 1580s to the U. S. Civil War, followed by the second part continuing into the 2000s. Each semester carries separate credit; the course meets the college literature ("L") requirement.

Although "survey" may suggest a lecture course, this section is not. There will be daily readings, regular oral reports and quizzes, frequent papers amd writing assignments of moderate length, and mid-term and final examinations. All assignments are based more on individual reading than on the class discussions and lectures. Reading assumes understanding, response, even interpretation. This is a humanities course, and since no two readers read in exactly the same way, the heart of the course must be the conversation and discussion -- even the debate -- on differences in reading. Some opinions are more interesting than others, but no single opinion can be the only "correct" one.

In theory, the texts of the course subject area are available in four possible ways, 1) in the traditional Norton anthology, 2) in the counter-culture Heath Anthology, 3) as separate paperbacks, and 4) online, limited to pre-1920 books in the public domain. The recent 7th edition of the Norton anthology, which we will be using, avoids the apparent bias toward "canonical" authors (often dead white males), visible in the earliest Norton editions. Responding to pressure from the rival Health anthology, the Norton now exhibits greater balance of gender, race, and ethnicity. But do we read individual works because we think them excellent or because we think it is politically correct to do so? The question is interesting because there is no easy answer: excellence in literature depends in part on what we believe, and what we believe depends in part on our ideas of excellence.

In any event, the rivalry of the two main anthologies of American literature (there are several additional minor contenders) has produced a race to include everything. As a result, the Norton 7 texts for this course, what used to be a single volume, are more than 3000 pages long, plus bibliographies. (The Manhattan phone book is only 2000 pages!) Realizing this, the editors decided to rename the Nortons as Package 1 (2 volumes, A and B) and Package 2 (3 volumes, C, D, and E). Fortunately, all the volumes in each package are numbered continuously.

Dividing the anthology into parts helps a little, but there are several issues other than girth and weight. Few people have actually read every word in any major literary anthology, and no course can possibly cover more than a fraction of its contents. The bulk of the unassigned, unread selections can be intellectually distracting. Yet it can also be intellectually challenging. The number of different coherent course syllabi that could be derived from an anthology such as the Norton is astronomical. Of course, many students quickly sell their textbooks upon completing a course -- not to mention the significant minority of students nationally who never acquire textbooks at all. But in visiting the homes of people out of college, it is amazing how many have kept and occasionally refer to their college literature anthologies and texts, which over time served as the foundation of their lifetime personal libraries.