Late Nineteenth Century: 1865-1910
The Development of Women's Narratives; Regional Voices, National Voices
The conjunction/contradiction of the terms "regional" and "national," along with the focus on gender indicated by women's narrative, both suggest a turn away from a deductive approach to literary categorization and analysis based on assumptions concerning what is universal or central about the human--and more specifically the national--experience and a move toward an inductive approach that recognizes the value of regarding the specificity of cultural context in understanding how a text works. Rather than a priori assuming certain texts or cultural experiences to be marginal because they foreground issues of region and gender, and thereby assert the centrality of other texts supposedly free of such "ancillary" considerations, we can instead expand the possibilities for classroom discussion and pedagogical practice by regarding all human experience and cultural expression as profoundly "regional," as intimately concerned with questions of region and gender, as well as race, social class, and other crucial processes of social definition. To group together, either in the anthology or on a syllabus, Henry James and Charles Chesnutt, African-American folktales, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is not to argue for the "equivalency" of these texts according to some external standard of literary evaluation, but to invite a consideration and comparison of their regionalness--the unique cultural contexts of their productions--as well as the dialogue, debate, and competition going on among them. Instead of using a set methodology for the reading of all texts, the conjunction of the texts in these sections asks students and teachers to consider how different texts signal different audience expectations, how they indicate or counter-indicate a desired audience, how they speak to a variety of audiences and audience expectations at once, how "regions," whether regions of gender or geography, race or class communicate with each other.
If we regard all texts as regional, from the perspective of pedagogy the primary region for class investigation is the classroom itself, where the particularity and "regionality" of each student's response to the literature occurs. As a preparation for a discussion of terms like "central" and "regional," "major" and "minor," "representative" and "marginal," students can explore their own responses to see what they find familiar and foreign in these texts. Here again the inductive approach works well, for while such reactions will obviously vary from student to student and from class to class, they provide us with a region-specific context for the consideration of the reception history of these works. Following Judith Fetterley's lead in The Resisting Reader, not only women in the class can explore the traditional experience of reading texts that assume the centrality of male experience, but all students can consider the difference represented by texts that assume the definitiveness and centrality of female experience--the texts in the section on women's narrative and Kate Chopin, Grace King, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson in the section on regional literature. Similarly, students from outside the Northeast can discuss what it's like reading texts that take the geography, climate, and culture of New England as a norm, or that figure the West as someplace wild, exotic, and mysterious. Clearly, this approach allows for a variety of cultural configurations and can be adapted to the specific demographics of the individual classroom.
Late nineteenth-century women's narratives, because they were long dismissed as merely "regionalist" writing, are in many ways now central to this regional approach to pedagogy. In her essay on "Regionalism and Woman's Culture," Marjorie Pryse suggests that the women writers traditionally classified as "regionalists" (writers such as Mary Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett) used the idea of region rhetorically as a means of demonstrating that supposedly universal terms like "mother," "home," "black," and "white" are in fact socially constructed, while at the same time negotiating a cultural space to make such demonstrations. These texts thus raise the question of how to get to center stage from the margins. Such a question functions both as a means of interpreting a story like the chapter entitled "The Actress" from Louisa May Alcott's novel Work and a way of understanding Alcott's position as a writer. Such a manipulation of center and margin can be applied equally to Paul Laurence Dunbar or Charles Chesnutt, who write of the African-American experience in the language of formal European literary traditions (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s work on the African-American cultural tradition of "signifyin(g)"--of both appropriating and ironically transforming forms and values from the dominant culture as part of an originally African rhetorical tradition--is especially applicable here as well as suggestive of rhetorical strategies used by any marginalized group), and to Samuel Clemens, who uses dialect and satire to write about a middle-class white world he both despised and aspired to.
Issues and Visions in Post-Civil War America
The "Issues and Visions" section in Volume 1 defined four initial contexts for the study of literary texts as rhetorical performances: "Indian Voices"; "The Literature of Slavery and Abolition"; "Literature and the 'Woman Question' "; and "Voices from the Southwest." One initial point of departure for classes using either one or both volumes of The Heath Anthology is the question of what difference the Civil War makes, both in general historical terms and in relation to these particular issues. Many institutions still structure their survey classes in American Literature using 1865 as the dividing line between old and new, the past and the modern, and this division reflects and reinforces widespread, if often conflicting and loosely defined, beliefs about the Civil War as the seminal event in American history. Again, the versions of this general historical sense that students bring to class can create the context for the reading and discussion of these post-Civil War texts, beginning with considerations of how different interpretations and representations of the Civil War serve different social, political, and cultural purposes (the Ken Burns documentary, with its aestheticized presentation, the attendant controversy over its romanticizing of the Confederate military and political leadership, and its current status as fund-raising cash cow for PBS can be one starting point.)
The issue of race and the struggles of African-Americans in post-Civil War America found in the section on "Regional Voices, National Voices" find representation here in the work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, while the majority of the texts in this section focus more on the evolution of the women's movement and the efforts of both Native American and Latino cultures to survive the continuing expansion of the U.S. empire. Again, the idea of cultural rhetoric can serve as a pedagogical entry into these texts by asking how these writers positioned themselves amidst various and often conflicting cultural identities related to gender, ethnicity, social class, religion, and region.
The question of empire--political, economic, and cultural--is particularly important to the historical study of post-Civil War America and can provide entry to these texts as well. Henry Adams's famous, and now canonical, use of the image of the Virgin and the dynamo to signify the cultural difference of modernity can be paired with Upton Sinclair's metaphor of "the jungle," along with his harrowing depictions of the meat-packing industry, as contrasting, yet not necessarily contradictory, visions of the impact of the expanding capitalist economy. In both cases, asking students to consider the perspectives from which these accounts are written (that of a member of one of America's elite families versus that of a crusading socialist journalist) can lead to discussions that integrate issues of political philosophy, rhetorical purpose, audience, tone, diction, and structure.
For example, Adams's scholarly allusions and ornate prose style, which are often alienating for students, can be studied as strategies meant to register with different members of the reading public in specific ways, so that questions about the difficulty of his style can lead to questions both about the audience he wants to reach and the audience he doesn't, and about why a writer would deliberately aim for a narrow readership while making claims for the universality of his analysis. The students can then examine where they feel they stand in relation to Adams's intended audience. The same questions, of course, can be posed in relation to Sinclair. In his case, the strategy is to reach a wide readership and incite moral outrage. Such questions of audience and rhetorical purpose lead to questions of canonicity, questions of which styles and strategies come to be considered "literary," which styles merely instrumental. Seeing and reading Adams in terms of his particular cultural and social position extends this discussion of canonicity to considerations involving the supposed universality of certain texts and the equally supposed limited appeal of others. Why, for example, has the skillfully rendered mid-life crisis of an upper-class New England intellectual been seen as universal in significance while the carefully constructed portrayal of the social practices leading to the nervous breakdown of a middle-class woman (Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper") has until recently been ignored or thought of as interesting only to a limited group of readers? Just as important, why have attitudes changed regarding "The Yellow Wall-Paper"? The purpose of such questions is not to insist that students adhere to a new version of the canon or simply to discredit an older version, but to understand that all considerations of literary merit and cultural significance take place in the context of changing social and cultural values and as part of ongoing debates about those values, debates that include college students as both observers and participants.
New Explorations of an "American" Self
While earlier in American history, writers like Benjamin Franklin, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass can be seen to have engaged in a highly self-conscious process of creating models for a national identity, the texts in this section can be read as attempts to assimilate, negotiate, and restructure established myths of national identity. Students can prepare for reading these texts by exploring their own received versions of these myths and by discussing various myths of immigration and assimilation, including the implications, desirability, and undesirability of the "melting pot" and other metaphors.
Beyond this examination of cultural mythology, the class can ground their discussions by compiling their own individual and family immigration histories. This project can include oral histories and research into various immigrant experiences. These immigration histories, along with the texts in this section, can then be approached in terms of how they do or don't fit into stereotypical models of the American self and the immigrant experience; more specifically, students can discuss the strategies these writers--as well as students and their ancestors-- used in confronting these models. Rather than simply reacting to a cultural situation, these texts attempt in various ways to alter and revise that situation. How did the large influx of Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, for example, adapt to and transform the American cultural landscape? Finally, Gertrude Bonnin's text continues the tradition among Native American writers of turning the immigrant myth inside out by addressing the question of how members of indigenous cultures deal with the experience of finding themselves strangers in their own land.