21L.501 | Fall 2006 | Undergraduate

The American Novel


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

This course explores the metaphorical, historical, social, and psychological value of ghosts in the American novel. Using the theme of “haunting” as a flashpoint for class discussion and a thematic center for our readerly attention, this course examines the American novel in the context of the various histories which might be said to haunt fictional characters in the American novel, to haunt the American novel itself, and ultimately to haunt us: America’s colonial past, its slave past, and other memorable and painful chapters in its past. How does the aesthetic work of the novel engage the politics of these haunting histories? Do these hauntings ultimately weaken or redeem the artistic quality of these novels? How do we talk about these novels both as works of art and products of their time? How do we analyze and write about these novels? How do fictional characters wrestle with their own historical demons, with ghosts from their cultural pasts, with memories that continue to haunt them? These are some of the questions we will attempt to answer throughout the semester.

The Skills You’ll Learn

  • How to recognize and respond to important details and patterns in American Literature
  • How to analyze and argue a case about a novel
  • How to preserve the memory of your (pleasurable) reading experiences
  • And, indeed, how to find pleasure in reading, in the first place
  • How to proselytize effectively to your friends about the joys of reading Literature

How You’ll Learn Those Skills


Regular attendance, punctuality, and active participation are mandatory for this class. Participation includes responding to questions or points raised in discussion and also generating discussion. You may miss exactly 2 classes without penalty, for any reason. Each miss beyond 2 will count for 2/3 of a letter grade taken off of your final grade (i.e. B to C+). More than 6 misses may mean no credit for the course (missed classes due to college athletics, religious holy days, or serious illness must be cleared with me). Two arrivals late to class will count as one absence, so please do and do try to arrive to class on time.

Assigned Readings

All readings (books) for the class are available at the bookstore. These readings must be completed by the date they appear on the syllabus.

Assigned Writings

Your assignments for class and their respective due dates are recorded on the syllabus. Unless otherwise directed, assignments must be submitted by 5 pm in my mailbox on the due date. Written assignments include two 5-page papers, a revision of one of those papers, and a 10-page paper.

Oral Presentations

Each student will choose a line or passage from the text assigned for the day’s reading, and the designated student will discuss what he or she thinks is the significance of the passage within the context of the book (or short story) itself. Then the student will also share his or her response/reaction to the passage and devise one question to pose to the class in an effort to generate class discussion. The presentation can run from 5-10 minutes long. I will, however, cut you off at exactly 10 minutes.

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism - use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement - is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at MIT Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Academic Integrity.

The citation style required for your essay submissions is known as the Modern Language Association (MLA) style. Please use this citation style for all of your essays. A week before your first essay assignment is due, you will be able to access a handout explaining the MLA style from The MIT Server. Please refer to The Bedford Handbook for more comprehensive coverage on plagiarism. And if you still have any questions concerning plagiarism or using citations, please don’t hesitate to ask me.


Essay 1 10%
Essay 2 10%
Revision 20%
Essay 3 30%
Participation (includes class attendance) 20%
Oral presentation 10%


1 Introduction

2-3 Nathaniel Hawthorne

4-5 Harriet Beecher Stowe

6-8 William Faulkner

9 Henry James Essay 1 due
10-12 Maxine Hong Kingston

13-15 Cormac McCarthy

16-18 Toni Morrison Essay 2 due in Ses #18
19-21 Louise Erdrich

22-23 Philip Roth Revision due in Ses #23
24-26 Edward P. Jones Essay 3 due in Ses #26

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2006
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments