21L.501 | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate

The American Novel: Stranger and Stranger


This section contains writing assignments that students completed in class, as well as three essay assignments. Students were also required to present their work for each essay in class. Unless otherwise noted, all examples are courtesy of anonymous MIT students, and are used with permission. The essays published here are unedited drafts submitted for class.

Essay 1: Mapping Melville

Due session 11

For this essay, you will explore Melville’s imagination of a vast space, the geographical world of Moby-Dick. Using a digital mapping tool called Locast and a database of Melville’s place names keyed to the Longman Critical Edition of the text, you will choose a geographical location or region that interests you. Use Annotation Studio to search Moby-Dick and annotate relevant place names, adding comments, images, and links to useful online materials. You will then create a “cast,” or small collection of images, video clips, and comments, to upload to Locast, to populate the class’s map of Melville’s world, and to share with the class on session 11. Your essay for this project will reflect on the significance of Melville’s references to the location you chose in Moby-Dick, focusing on particular passages in the text.

Resources for Mapping Moby-Dick in Locast (PDF)

“Locations as Characters, A Look at Geography in Moby-Dick” (PDF)

“Ahab: The American Tragic Hero” (PDF)

Essay 2: Genealogies in Jacobs, Twain, or Wharton

Due session 19

These authors illuminate the effects of family relationships across boundaries of race, gender, and class. Careful study of the characters’ genealogies and family relationships uncovers distinctive themes, patterns, and structures within the book. Use Annotation Studio to search one of these texts for details of family relationships. Then create a poster displaying what you consider the most significant of these relationships and patterns. You will present your poster in the workshop on session 19. In your essay, show how you see/read the effects of genealogy on the novel’s themes or characters, focusing on specific examples and passages in the text.

“Genealogy in Age of Innocence: What’s in a Name?” (PDF)

Essay 3: Timelines in Faulkner or Morrison

Due session 26

Both these authors concern themselves deeply with American history and its impact on their characters. For this project, you will use Annotation Studio to mark temporal elements of one text and reproduce them on a poster, displaying your material in whatever format suits you—a timeline (of the book’s events or of historical events or both) or something less linear. You will present your poster in class on session 26. Your essay will consider the meaning of time or history in some selected aspect of the novel you have chosen.

“Becoming Wilderness: A Look at Betrayal in A Mercy” (PDF)

“Reflection of History in Absalom, Absalom!” (PDF) by Lakshmi Subbaraj

In-Class Writing Assignments

Students had twenty minutes to complete the following in-class writing assignments.

3 Octavia Butler’s Kindred Each time Dana returns she has faced a deadly danger. What makes the final episode similar to or different from the others? What details of her final wound does Butler use to show the significance of this event? Pay attention to language and quote specifics.
10 Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick Read the section that begins “But far beneath this wondrous world” (p. 345) and ends “I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy” (p. 346) in “The Grand Armada.” Write a response to what seems to you most striking in this section: an image, the development of an idea, a particular pattern or use of language, a shift in voice, an example of irony. Quote specifics from the passage and discuss their implications.
13 Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl In Chapter XXIX, “Preparations for Escape,” Harriet Jacobs meets secretly with her son almost as she did with Ellen in Chapter XXVII “New Destination for the Children.” She is surprised to learn that Benny has known all along about her imprisonment in the attic, and she attributes his “prudence” to his slave status: “slaves, being surrounded by mysteries, deceptions, and dangers, early learn to be suspicious and watchful, and prematurely cautious and cunning.” Does this statement reflect her experience as well? If so, how does it explain her role as narrator of her own story? If not, how would you characterize her responses to danger? Can one be a slave and avoid the atmosphere of suspicion and cunning? Do these traits lend themselves to being a writer? Be specific and cite details from the story.
15 Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson Please read the passage in the courtroom scene that begins, “I beg the indulgence of the court while I make a few remarks,” and ends “(The audience were interested once more.)” Note the language with which Wilson describes fingerprints with multiple references to writing (“marks,” “signature,” “autograph,” “illegible,” and so on). Wilson’s metaphor seems to suggest the permanence of writing. Yet this writing takes place on skin, something that Twain seems at pains to show is changeable, malleable and impermanent. Explore the implications of this paradox for a theme or character in the book.
18 Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence Read the passage in Chapter XXXIII (“Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability…affectionate leave of her friend and cousin”) in which Archer experiences a “vast flash” of revelation. Often such moments serve in literary texts to dramatize the act of recognition, or anagnorisis. What is Archer recognizing and how does Wharton make the depth and irony of his recognition clear?
22 William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! “Why do you hate the South?” What inspires Shreve’s question? What is the effect of placing it at the end of the novel? What explains Quentin’s answer?

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
Activity Assignments
Presentation Assignments
Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights