21L.501 | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate
The American Novel: Stranger and Stranger


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

The novel is a place where strangers meet. Characters in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy meet strangers who are disturbingly kin, kin who turn out to be strangers. These often-experimental works also reflect on America as a home for strangers, and as a stranger in the global family. We will study the ways fiction can create new, undreamed-of relationships and forms of storytelling in a strange world.

Travelers to a strange world need tools, maps, schema of different kinds. Our work in this class will depend on the tools of literary analysis: close reading, study of plot structure, character development, and language, and interpretive skills. We will also adapt interpretive tools from other domains, using maps, genealogies, timelines, and a simple annotation tool (Annotation Studio) to make the strange familiar, even as these authors make the familiar strange.

Assignments will include three essays, in-class presentations of work-in-progress (one map, two posters), and in-class writing assignments.

Required Reading

[Melville] = Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition. Edited by John Bryant and Haskell Springer. Longman, 2009. ISBN: 9780205514083.

[Jacobs] = Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Harvard University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780674035836. [Preview with Google Books]

[Twain] = Twain, Mark. Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Edited by R. D. Gooder. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780199554713. [Preview with Google Books]

[Wharton] = Wharton, Edith. Age of Innocence. Vintage, 2012. ISBN: 9780307949516.

[Faulkner] = Faulkner, William. Absalom! Absalom. Vintage, 1991. ISBN: 9780679732181.

[Morrison] = Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. Vintage, 2009. ISBN: 9780307276766.

[Butler] = Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Beacon Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780807083697.

Note: Although it is best to have the classroom text, in most cases you may use a different edition if you prefer. In the case of Moby-Dick, however, the Longman edition edited by John Bryant offers features that other texts lack and that will be important to our discussions of the text.


1 Introduction  
Strange Places
2 [Butler] “Prologue,” “The River,” “The Fire,” and “The Fall”  

[Butler] “The Fight,” “The Storm,” “The Rope,” and “Epilogue”

Annotation Studio Workshop


[Melville] “Etymology,” “Extracts,” and Chapters 1–9

Locast Mapping Workshop

5 [Melville] Chapters 10–28  
6 [Melville] Chapters 29–46  
7 [Melville] Chapters 47–67  
8 [Melville] Chapters 68–88  
9 [Melville] Chapters 89–113  
10 [Melville] Chapter 113 and Epilogue  
11 Presentations in class: Maps Essay 1 due at midnight online.
Strange Families
12 [Jacobs] Chapters 1–18  
13 [Jacobs] Chapters 19–41  
14 [Twain] Chapters 1–11  
15 [Twain] Chapters 12–21 and Conclusion  
16 [Wharton] Chapters 1–13  
17 [Wharton] Chapters 14–23  
18 [Wharton] Chapters 24–34  
19 Presentations in class: Genealogies Essay 2 due at midnight online.
Strange Histories
20 [Faulkner] Chapters 1–4  
21 [Faulkner] Chapters 5–7  
22 [Faulkner] Chapters 8–9  
23 [Morrison] Chapters 1–4  
24 [Morrison] Chapters 5–7  
25 [Morrison] Chapters 8–13  
26 Presentations in class: Timelines Essay 3 due at midnight online.

Important Things to Know

  • Each student will be allowed 1 excused absence; an excused absence means that you have an urgent reason to miss class and have contacted me in advance. For any additional or unexcused absence your attendance grade will be reduced by 1/3 of a grade. If you are having trouble meeting your requirements for attendance and participation, please see me at once.
  • Papers must be submitted online by midnight on the day that they are due. Class time that day will allow for writing workshops and in-class presentations before you hand in your final draft. Come to class with draft in hand.
  • Please be sure to hand your papers in on time. Lateness will result in lower paper grades. For each day that your paper is late, your grade will be lowered by 1/3 (i.e. a B+ will become a B after one day, a B- after 2 days and so on. Weekends will be included).
  • Because of the writing-intensive nature of this course and the swift reading pace, extensions may be granted only in extreme situations (illness, family crisis, or other equally difficult circumstances). You will need to contact me at least 24 hours before the paper is due in order to receive an extension.
  • Intellectual integrity is imperative in all of our work. Plagiarism, co-opting of another’s work, will not be tolerated in any class. This is the Literature Section’s policy on plagiarism:
    • 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, including images and other media, 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 in the Writing and Communication Center, 12-132, and the MIT Website on Plagiarism.
  • The Writing and Communication Center offers free professional advice about oral presentations and about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing. The best way to guarantee an appointment is to schedule early!
  • Students with Disabilities that might affect their work, in or out of class, should check with me as soon as possible (privately after class or by email). MIT is committed to the principle of equal opportunity for students with disabilities with proper registration for accommodations.
  • Student Support Services (S³): If you are encountering academic difficulty of any kind, be sure to take advantage of the resources at S³. “Student Support Services (S³) is designed to be a friendly and easily accessible hub of support. Whether you are having trouble with academic work for personal or medical reasons, you are considering taking time away from the Institute, or you just don’t know who to talk to, we can help. A diverse staff welcomes conversations with students about their interests, and the challenges and dilemmas they encounter.”
  • Research/Library/Technology Assistance: If you have library-related questions about research and resources, contact our liaison.


This course consists of both an oral component, which accounts for 25% of the grade, and a written component, which counts for 75%.

In-class presentation 15%
Class attendance and participation 10%
3 5-page essays 60%
In-class writing 15%

Writing Assignments

All essays will build on your use of Annotation Studio, a simple digital annotation tool that allows you to search and take notes in a digital text, to display your comments either privately or publicly, and to filter, tag, and sort your notes. Please go to the site to find out more about the tool (scroll down menu under “The Application” to “Tutorial”). You will receive a link where you can register for the site and begin annotating texts.

Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
assignment Activity Assignments
assignment Presentation Assignments
assignment_turned_in Written Assignments with Examples
co_present Instructor Insights