Spring 2011 Course: American Literature Since 1865

An old standby I was asked to teach for Continuing Ed. As familiar as this material is, and as “easy” as it seems to pick it out and plug it in, this course was difficult to define and to teach. I’ve thought so much about some of this material I find myself caught between trying to say too much and too little. On the one hand, I want to make clear why these texts work so well together, how they define an historical trajectory. On the other, I find myself wondering whether I only wind up talking about “shit only Ben cares about.” I had a rather large epiphany about The Great Gatsby while writing up and recording the lecture. And then I wondered if I was only just realizing what everyone already knows about the text. And then I wondered whether it’s worth sharing with students if its either obscure or obvious. Sometimes it’s easier to teach things no one teaches or things that are very new. You don’t have to deal with a critical history or the weight of students’ past interactions. Of course, that is why I deal mainly in contemporary American literature, when I deal with literature at all. And damn if I’m going to teach Huck Finn anytime soon. It’s my new Beloved.

ENGL 3665: American Literature since 1860
Instructor: Benjamin J Robertson

This course will cover some of the broader periods/movements of American literature since the Civil War including: realism, naturalism, modernism, and postmodernism. The focus of the class will be on how these periods, and the literary styles endemic to each, address questions regarding gender, race, class, and, above all, Americanness.

We will begin the course with a consideration of American founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. We will then consider several responses to these documents and the history that engendered them in order to advance certain questions that will prove useful in our study of the literature to follow. We will look at influential studies of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Herman Melville and Henry James to help us frame these questions.

After this initial part of the course is through we will move on to examples of American literature from the second half of the 19th century, including work by Dickinson, Whitman, Twain, and Crane. We will then spend some time considering American attitudes regarding race and gender at the turn of the century through texts by Du Bois, Washington, Gilman, and Chopin. From there we move into the modernist period with Eliot, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Stein, and Ellison. We will conclude with several examples of postmodern fiction and poetry by Hejinian, Perelman, Pynchon, and Morrison. As we progress through the material we will pay careful attention to the conversations these texts carry on and how they return to the same questions over and over, reshaping them in the context of new artistic practices, historical moments, and cultural events.

Understand the major movements in American literature since the Civil War
Learn to recognize the styles of various writers and how those styles contribute to American literature
Develop critical skills necessary for writing strong arguments and taking positions on challenging questions about the nature and history of American culture

6 quizzes based on reading and lectures: 30%
Participation in discussion threads: 15%
2 short essays: 20%
1 long essay: 20%
Weekly, paragraph-long responses to reading: 15%


  • Stephen Crane: Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (Bantam, 1986; ISBN: 978-0553213553)
  • Kate Chopin, The Awakening (Bantam, 1985; ISBN: 978-0553213300)
  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Norton, 1998; ISBN: 978-0393966404)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Scribner, 1999; ISBN: 978-0743273565)
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (Harper, 2006; 978-0060913076)
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved (Vintage, 2004; ISBN: 978-1400033416)
  • other texts available online or through CULearn

Note: Copies of the Crane and the Chopin will be ordered at the CU Bookstore, but you are free to use one of the legally available online versions of those texts. If you choose to do so, please make sure you find those versions legible. The Chopin, for example, is formatted in manner that some might find annoying. In the case of the Twain, please buy the Norton Critical edition. Other editions are very different and this difference will affect your reading of the novel. You may use any available editions of the other texts, although in most cases there is only one version available.

Text list



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