21L.705 | Fall 2010 | Undergraduate
Major Authors: America's Literary Scientists

Syllabus

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

Global exploration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries radically changed Western science, orienting philosophies of natural history to more focused fields like comparative anatomy, botany, and geology. In the United States, European scientific advances and home-grown ventures like the Wilkes Exploring Expedition to Antarctica and the Pacific inspired new endeavors in cartography, ethnography, zoology, and evolutionary theory, replacing rigid models of thought and classification with more fluid and active systems. They inspired literary authors as well. This class will examine some of the most remarkable of these authors—Herman Melville (Moby-Dick and “The Encantadas”), Henry David Thoreau (Walden), Sarah Orne Jewett (Country of the Pointed Firs), Edith Wharton (House of Mirth), Toni Morrison (A Mercy), among others—in terms of the subjects and methods they adopted, imaginatively and often critically, from the natural sciences.

Course Requirements

Class Format

This class allows participants to develop a body of research on the scientific concepts, methods, and contexts that inform these literary works. We will use this research to illuminate the fruitful relationship between science and art during a period when such terms did not appear as divided as they do now. We will also try to become better readers of authors who read voraciously in many fields now often opaque to us. No special knowledge of science or the history of science is required.

Readings

Herman, Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition. New York, NY: Longman Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780205514083.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings. New York, NY: Norton Critical Edition, 2008.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2009. ISBN: 9780451531445.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780192835796.

Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2009. ISBN: 9780307276766.

Assignments

The work for this course supports and carefully leads up to a substantial project requiring research, close reading, and critical thinking and writing. Students will choose topic areas at the beginning of the term, then refine these as their research, in-class presentations, introductory essays, annotated bibliographies, and progress reports allow them to develop their ideas.

Grading

ACTIVITIES PERCENTAGES
In-class presentation 15%
Essay 1: Close reading (5 pp.) 15%
Prospectus and annotated bibliography (5 pp.) 10%
Progress report (2 pp.) 5%
Essay 2: Research essay (15 pp.) 30%
Attendance and participation 25%

MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgment—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 acknowledgment 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 the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.

Calendar

LEC # TOPICS KEY DATES
Part One: Humans in Nature
1 Introduction: On and Off the Scientific Grid  
2

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapter 32

Wilson. “Melville, Darwin, and the Great Chain of Being

 
3

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 1-9

Library Workshop (Preparation for preliminary research on report topic)

 
4

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 10-24

Report Topic: Exploration (James Cook, Wilkes Exploring Expedition, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle)

 
5

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 25-40

Report Topics: Taxonomy and Comparative Anatomy (Cuvier, Owen, Linnaeus)

Natural History of the Whale:
(Beale)

 
6

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 41-53

Report Topic: Racial Science (Josiah Nott, Samuel Morton, Richard Knox)

Optics:
(Goethe)

Cartography:
(Maury)

 
7

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 54-66

Report Topic: Illustration and Image (Goldsmith, Scoresby, Garneray, J. Ross Browne)

 
8

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 67-82

Report Topic: Dissection and the Brain
(Phrenology, Gall and Spurzheim)

 
9

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 83-98

Report Topic: Sex and Social Behavior
(Scoresby and Beale, Chambers, Darwin)

 
10

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 99-117

Report Topic: Geology and the Fossil Record
(Lyell, Chambers, Cuvier)

 
11

Melville. Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, chapters 118-“Epilogue”

Report Topic: New Technology in the Nineteenth-Century
(Machinery, The Railroad)

 
12

Melville. “The Encantadas”

Report Topic: Darwin and the Evolution of Evolution

 
13 “The Encantadas” (cont.) Essay 1 (5 pp) due
14

Thoreau. Walden and Other Writings.

“Economy”

 
15

Thoreau. Walden and Other Writings. (cont.)

“Where I Lived and What I Lived For”, “Reading,” “Sounds,” “Visitors,” “The Bean Field”

 
16

Thoreau. Walden and Other Writings. (cont.)

“The Village,” “The Ponds,” “Baker Farm,” “Higher Laws,” “Brute Neighbors,” “Housewarming”

 
17

Thoreau. Walden and Other Writings. (cont.)

“Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” “Winter Animals,” “The Pond in Winter,” “Spring,” “Conclusion”

Prospectus and annotated bibliography for final essay due 5 days after Ses #17
Part Two: Nature In Humans
18 Jewett. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories.  
19 Jewett. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. (cont.)  
20 Wharton. The House of Mirth, Book I, chapters 1-9.  
21 Wharton. The House of Mirth, Book I, chapters 10-15, Book II, chapters 1-2.  
22 Wharton. The House of Mirth, to conclusion. Progress report (2 pp) due
23 Morrison. A Mercy.  
24 Morrison. A Mercy. (cont.) Final essay (15 pp) plus documentation due
Course Info
Instructor
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As Taught In
Fall 2010
Learning Resource Types
assignment Presentation Assignments
assignment Written Assignments