Instructor Insights

Choice of Novels

In this section, Dr. Kelley discusses how she chose the novels for this course.

The American Novel

I’ve taught this class many times as an introduction to the American novel. There are standard authors that we cover—it has been a greatest hits class with literary themes emerging from the accumulation of novels like The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We almost always include a book by William Faulkner and one by Toni Morrison. When I teach this course, there’s more 19th-century literature than there is 20th-century literature.

This particular offering of the course used a number of the same texts but in a new way for me. I tend to try to put a little friction in my own machine by picking something like Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, which I had taught maybe once before. It’s a difficult text for me. I had taught Octavia Butler’s Kindred in another context before. When we originally designed the course, we expected everyone would teach Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. I don’t do that any more, though I do try to include something by Twain. There are omissions on my reading list as well. I didn’t teach Hawthorne that semester, I almost never teach Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein eludes me. I have started teaching Moby-Dick again, although I hadn’t taught it for a long time. Students complain that it’s too long, but lately I have just said, “we have to do it,” and I pick some shorter novels to balance things. Sometimes I try to bring in Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it’s such a controversial book and people talk about it without having read it. I always think it’s a good challenge to use a book that everyone has an opinion about. I try to have as many female writers as male, along with multiracial authors. For the 19th century, there tend to be two races. This isn’t ideal for the course because there are so many more than two, but I do want books in which race gets talked about in powerful ways.

The Texts of Stranger and Stranger

We started off the first theme, strange places, with Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is a time-travel novel. It’s science fiction, which takes the character to a strange place historically, back to the past, back to a slave plantation. That got us thinking about geographies as narrative spaces, which I wanted as the context for thinking about Moby-Dick. I’ve taught that book many different ways, but this time I really wanted to focus on mapping and on ways for the students to understand a geographical imagination—a writer who is all over the place in his head, in his experience, and in the world he’s describing.

The second theme was strange families. The idea here was to look at genealogy and family trees and see them as structural elements in a narrative. We started with Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which has a slave family and a white family, and they’re all interconnected. Then we encountered a similar situation in Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain, which is really all about nursing mothers, how they’re nursing babies from different families, and how that makes siblings out of people who are on opposite sides of the racial divide. The third novel for this theme was a very different kind of novel—Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. In this novel, families are divided by class and name, and the child from one line falls in love with the child from another line. They’re all related to each other, but they’re also separated by and estranged by these histories.

That brought us to the last theme of the course, strange histories. Here, we started with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which is about the Civil War. Then, we read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, which looks at a time before slavery was institutionalized, when almost everybody in the 17th-century colonies in the South was in service in some way. They were slaves, servants, indentured servants, wives purchased from European families and brought over to America, and even men who owed for their land, who were indebted or in other ways bound to other people. The idea with both of these novels was to look at the very fluid aspects of history, the ways in which what we know as a timeline has so many fluid narratives breaking it up and opening it up.

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