Level of study Third/Final year
Credit value 20
Semester Usually two
Other pre-requisites You must have completed at least two years of appropriate study in this discipline.
This course is designed to explore the outburst of writing activity that occurred in America in the decades leading up to the American Civil War (1861-5), during the war itself and just afterwards. In particular, it will focus on the twenty-year period 1840-1860. This period is often designated the American Renaissance: that moment in American literary history when American writing 'came of age' and found its distinctive 'American' voice. The classical critical study referred to when defining this period is F O Mathiessen's "The American Renaissance", a text which will provide a constant reference-point during the teaching of this module, both for its strengths and its weaknesses.
More recently a series of revisionary studies have been produced which emphasise the significance of popular culture and women's writing. Many critics now believe that these were to an extent neglected or under-explored by Mathiessen and his contemporaries, for whom the Renaissance voice was chiefly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male. David Reynolds' "Beneath the American Renaissance" and Jane Tompkins' "Sensational Designs" are two key texts in this re-estimation. These books should also be consulted in detail early on in the module. Other critics, such as Sacvan Bercovitch and Philip Fisher, were also of considerable importance. Crucially, these critics tend to place more stress on history (and gender history and ethnic history), and some can be seen as taking a 'new historicist' approach. The so-called New Historicism attempts to see literature as part of cultural history (via 'thick readings' [Geertz] of the culture), relating it in detail to its cultural historical and political context. Students will also read more generally about this critical stance.