In this section, Dr. Kelley describes her motivation for and thematic organization of 21L.501 The American Novel: Stranger and Stranger offered in Spring 2013.
Motivation for the Course
This course is always about the American novel, examined through the lens of a specific theme that varies from semester to semester. Examples of past themes include ghosts, wealth and poverty, and the American Revolution. This semester, the theme was strangers and strangeness in the American novel. I got interested in this theme during a seminar talk. It was about strangers, which is a very well-worn theme, but it specifically focused on relating the appearance of strangers to different kinds of strangeness. I was interested in the way that texts estrange readers at the same time that they create family ties and the other kinds of connections that we look for in a text. This new theme gave me a way to refresh some of the texts I taught before, bring in some texts I hadn’t tried in a while, and make connections I hadn’t used before.
Organizing the Course Thematically
I broke the course up thematically according to this theme of strangeness and different ways of estranging and connecting people. The tension between estranging and familiarizing was critical. The first theme (explored in the Butler and Melville novels) was strange places and traveling into strange places. The second theme (explored in the Jacobs, Twain, and Wharton works) was strange families; the genealogies that connect people but also divide them can be very strange and estranging. The third theme (explored in the Faulkner and Morrison novels) was strange histories and the idea that people come with strange narratives or backgrounds.
This thematic organization was a move from space to time, in some sense. It really made sense to talk about the geography first, and then move into a narrower frame focusing on the family, and then the self and one’s place in history. I also see a lot of value in proceeding chronologically, though; it fits the logic of my mind, and I could certainly go back to that in the future.