Early Ninteenth Century: 1800-1865
Myths, Tales, and Legends
These two sections continue the exploration of the creation of myths of national and personal identity that followed the emergence of the political entity known as the United States. Whereas the depth and specificity of scholarly knowledge that any given set of students will have about U.S. history is unpredictable and inconsistent, students will bring to class mythic or legendary senses of those cultural constructs called "America" and "American history." Pedagogy can begin with an examination of this historical consciousness on the part of the students--the "myths, tales, and legends" students bring with them into the class.
The selections in this first section can thus be read in terms of both historical connections with our various contemporary historical imaginations and also their performative dimension as rhetoric intended to shape and create a specific sense of the past. Class can begin by asking what expectations and assumptions are created in a reader by the words "myth," "tale," and "legend." What are the differences between the collectively produced legends and tales of an oral tradition (The "Tales From the Hispanic Southwest," the Native American stories retold by Schoolcraft, or the texts found in the section on Native American oral narratives) and the individualized performances of Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick? In what ways does a play like Mordecai Manuel Noah's She Would Be A Soldier, with its careful attention to theatrical detail and spectacular performance history, represent an intersection between the public and the private, the oral and the written? What are the strategies behind deliberately creating a "legend"? These texts also demonstrate how the creators of legends competed and debated with one another over questions of national purpose and identity, whether in Irving's deflation of self-aggrandizing, Eurocentric historians (A History of New York), Noah's playful blend of melodrama, gender-switching, and patriotic chauvinism (She Would Be A Soldier), or Cooper's (The Pioneers) and Sedgwick's (Hope Leslie) alternative versions of pioneer and Indian experiences.
Explorations of an "American" Self
This section changes the focus on mythmaking from the national to the personal level. The word "exploration" suggests the rhetorical dimension of these textual performances, as each writer strives to find or create consensus among a diverse national audience in order to construct a sense of personal identity at once collective and individual. From this perspective, Emerson's creation and invocation of an "aboriginal Self" in "Self-Reliance" can be seen as alternative rather than definitive, as one of many claims to articulate a national sense of mission based on the construction of a particular "American" identity. While Emerson brought to his performances an access to cultural authority based on his race, gender, and class status, other writers--Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Margaret Fuller, and George Copway--had to work hard simply to establish a right to speak because of these same social factors. The class can highlight the stakes involved in the debate over national identity by asking questions about purpose, audience, and strategy: what was each writer trying to achieve; who did each seem to be talking to; and why did each think the strategy he or she used would work? Such an approach helps focus critical attention on not just how an American identity might be constructed, but for what ends. These questions can also apply to contemporary constructions of the "American Self" and they look forward to the section on "New Explorations of an `American' Self" in Volume 2 of The Heath Anthology.
Issues and Visions in Pre-Civil War America
Most anthologies of literature published over the last fifty years have relied on criteria derived from traditional New Critical models of literary analysis. Those models valued what was taken to be the inherent formal complexity of individual texts, a complexity seen as separate and separable from the historical and cultural circumstances of the production of the text. As a result, many pedagogical arguments over the canon have centered on whether certain texts were "complicated" enough to sustain extended classroom discussion or analysis and thus merit inclusion in an anthology or a course syllabus. The implication was that some texts were somehow self-evident in their meaning and intent, and therefore "simple," while other, seemingly more complicated texts, demanded and therefore deserved close scrutiny; for example, what can you say about a novel as supposedly straightforward and uncomplicated as Uncle Tom's Cabin? But the ambiguous, self-referential Benito Cereno provides plenty of material for class discussion.
As many instructors will testify, however, classroom experience often tells a different story, where few if any nineteenth-century texts, no matter how supposedly "simple" or "straightforward," are experienced as self-evident by first-time readers in the class. There are at least two other pedagogical problems stemming from an emphasis on "formal complexity" as well: the circularity of the argument--very often definitions of formal complexity were based on the same texts they were supposed to define--and, even more important to literary studies, such a critical model failed to account for a large number of texts considered significant by nineteenth-century readers, and thus prevented a richer understanding of cultural history.
The "Issues and Visions" approach to grouping texts addresses these concerns in the classroom by recognizing that literary and linguistic complexity resides not apart from but within the historical and cultural context of a text. Such an approach emphasizes texts as rhetorical performances, performances as complex as the rhetorical demands and contingencies to which they respond: A Christian Indian appealing to a dominant culture audience responsible for both his religious faith and the subjugation of his people (Elias Boudinot); a Northern single mother writing satirical denunciations of male dominance for a popular press dominated by male editors and publishers (Fanny Fern); an ex-slave demanding both racial justice and gender equality before an audience of white women (Sojourner Truth). The title alone of Angelina Grimké's "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South" suggests the complexity of the rhetorical situation she faced (and hence makes a good starting place for class discussion), balancing issues of gender, race, religion, region, and class in arguing for the abolition of slavery.
By challenging the notion of "background" material, the interrelationship of text and context in this rhetorical approach has important pedagogical implications for the question of how much historical information students need to understand any text, whether its author is Ralph Waldo Emerson or Sojourner Truth; Abraham Lincoln or Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Students can be encouraged to explore the historical context through the text by raising questions of rhetorical strategy. Beginning with the ideas and assumptions about slavery and abolition, the struggle for women's rights, the Indian experience, or the history of the West that students bring with them, the class can then explore how a particular text confirms, resists, or otherwise complicates those ideas and assumptions. Exploring the students' reading experiences of the texts can lead to questions about why writers use a certain vocabulary, set of references, or set of rhetorical strategies, and these questions in turn involve thinking about who the contemporary audience(s) for that text were and what expectations and values they held. Elaine Sargent Apthorp's teaching guide for John Greenleaf Whittier contains excellent examples of assignments designed to focus students' attention on the complexity of Whittier's performance as a public poet dedicated to political activism.
The Flowering of Narrative
The pedagogical Introduction to the "Issues and Visions" section suggests that students should be encouraged to regard texts not as static set pieces but as complex rhetorical performances embedded in cultural debates over race, gender, political legitimacy and economics. While this "cultural rhetoric" approach seems especially suited for the consideration of "noncanonical" material that doesn't fit neatly into the traditional genre categories of poetry, drama and fiction (for example, newspaper columns, personal letters, memoirs, political speeches), it represents not a special technique to use with "unusual" materials, but a means of seeing all texts--and all acts of reading--as performative. Instead of regarding the textual performances in the sections in narrative and poetry as standing apart from earlier, less "literary" selections, instructors can use a cultural rhetoric approach to raise questions about the differences in motive, impact, and strategy in such works on race and slavery as Frederick Douglass' autobiography, Harriet Beecher Stowe's openly polemical novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Herman Melville's elusive Benito Cerano. The class might, for example, analyze Nathaniel Hawthorne's allegorical meditations on gender, aesthetics, obsession, and domination in such stories as "Rappaccini's Daughter," "The Birth-mark," and "The Artist of the Beautiful" in the light of the arguments regarding the political and social status of women in the nineteenth centuruy raised by Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Depending on the background and training of individual instructors, the names found in "The Flowering of Narrative" will represent a mix of the intensely familiar with the radically new, the canonical with the noncanonical. This mix will also be true for some students; for others, however, "familiarity" may indicate little more than name recognition and carry few if any implications of "greatness" or "classic" status. For the instructor unsure of how to approach the new, and for the students to whom almost every nineteenth-century text is strange and remote, the first step may be the question of the canon itself, and specifically an expansion of the question Judith Fetterley reports her students asking in regard to Caroline Kirkland: Why haven't we heard of these writers before? (For other writers the question would be the reverse: Why have we heard so much about them?) As the class reads through these selections, they can classify or reclassify the writers in terms of technique, subject matter, or audience appeal. Such discussions can provide the foreground for considerations of how canons have been constructed historically (it can often be illuminating to look at copies of tables of contents from anthologies from the nineteenth century to the present).
The Emergence of American Poetic Voices
If many students come into class with the assumption that "poetry" is necessarily distant and obscure, the section on "Songs and Ballads" can lead to discussions both about definitions of poetry and where these definitions come from. This in turn can involve discussions about the different kinds of cultural work poems do, from self-expression to the ritual building of a sense of communal solidarity, from self-examination to social protest. Equally important is the inclusion of song lyrics, for they remind students that not only is poetry still an active part of contemporary cultural life in general, but part of many students' lives in particular.
If the texts in the "Issues and Visions" sections provide cultural context for these poems, then the inclusion of poetry and fiction in the "Issues and Visions" sections themselves gives students practice in discussing issues of genre and style from different perspectives: How would we read Whitman differently, for example, if he were included in the section on abolitionist literature? If Whittier were included with Bryant and Longfellow (as he often is) rather than with William Lloyd Garrison and David Walker? If Emily Dickinson, Frances Sargent Locke Osgood, or Lydia Howard Hunt Sigourney were included in the section on the "The Woman Question"? These exercises in classification and reclassification can also work within this section: many anthologies and syllabi have grouped Whitman and Dickinson as opposed to Longfellow and Bryant. What other possibilities are there, and what do they reveal? And again, such questions lead back to a consideration of the processes and purposes of canon formation.