Scholars and literary critics have long been discussing what constitutes a national literature. What are the relations between national identity and literary production and consumption? Does a national literature mirror or produce national identity? Is there such a thing as a national literature in a nation as historically diverse as the USA? Can something correctly be called American if it only deals with issues related to the USA? Simultaneously, scholars have been debating the ideological function of categorizing something as “great” (as in Great Works of American Literature). Great for whom, these scholars ask. In this course we will think long and hard about these questions about nation and canonicity as we read literature from different periods of US history.
Rather than attempting a comprehensive introduction to the history of US literature (a task that would be doomed to fail given the constraints of a short summer session and the volume of US literature that we would need to cover), the readings have been chosen as samples of the incredibly rich body of literature—poetry, fiction, and drama—that writers in the US have produced through the centuries. Rather than grouping the readings chronologically, I have grouped them according to thematic content, form, the identity of the writers, or as juxtapositions of any one of those categories.