Although I list suggested topics below, you are always free to devise topics of your own, in consultation with me and the course tutor. Each of these topics is deliberately open, in order to accommodate different interests that will become more obvious as the class develops. Be prepared to use tutorials and conferences to develop your topics along much more specific lines. For revisions, you can expand your original topic by adding new materials, developing your thesis, or drawing on research.
Although the authors and subjects differ from assignment to assignment these expectations remain the same throughout:
The authors you have read so far were intimately involved in and writing about major historical events: migration from Europe, Puritan New England, war with Native Americans, the American Revolution, slavery, the shaping of a post-Revolutionary society. Choose one author and a passage in his or her work where you feel this author reveals insight into his or her historical moment. Drawing on research into a specific historical event or phenomenon, show how the passage you've chosen makes sense of, or perhaps fails to make sense of its historical subject. What are the implications of your discovery for this work or for a contemporary reader's understanding of it?
Although American antebellum authors continue to have an impact on 21st century readers because of their ideas, they are also artists in their medium, the written word, and passionately concerned with the power and uses of language. Focusing on a brief passage from one of these writers, give it a close reading, paying particular attention to word choice, sentence patterns, rhythms and sounds, and other stylistic devices. Then develop your reading by asking: how does the author's use of language support or complicate his or her meaning? What does it suggest about the relationship of language to action, ideas, political issues, or human concerns? Use these questions to open up your reading, but try not to get too general and abstract; keep your focus on the individual author and his or her style.
The authors you've read from the second half of the 19th century – Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Samuel Clemens – use widely different styles and genres, but they also intersect with important themes and issues in their culture: labor and class struggle, slavery and racial conflicts, the meaning and significance of Christianity, social roles (as governed by gender, race, age, or class), America as a nation and landscape, urbanization and the frontier, the Civil War, the problem for the artist of living in a marketplace economy. Choose two of these authors or one of them and another from earlier in the course to compare. While selecting a single theme or literary strategy as the basis of your comparison, be selective too in your choice of passages that will focus your point.
To write her novel Jazz, Toni Morrison drew from a rich reservoir of historical, cultural, artistic, and popular references. As a result, Jazz reflects on a particular period, the Harlem Renaissance, and also on themes in the creation and preservation of American history, particularly that of African-Americans whose stories have not been told. Drawing on research into the Jazz Age, select some event, author, or cultural production (jazz being only the most obvious example) to examine more closely in Morrison's text. How does Morrison use historical details to develop her literary aims?