ENGL 589-01: 19th Century US Literature: Class and the American Dream

Section Description:

As scholars routinely note, class remains an under-studied category in 19th-century U. S. literature and culture. This course will examine literary and cultural representations of social class, and will explore how class as literary construction is inseparable from discourses of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nation, and empire. Overall in the course, we will explore the American Dream of unencumbered class mobility as a particular instance of what critic Lauren Berlant terms “national fantasy,” a utopian national ideal at once deemed universally accessible and inscribed by a variety of social differences. We will examine the way 19th-century literary texts both reproduce, and expose contradictions within, this governing ideology of “Americanness”: we will consider the ways in which these texts measure the distance between utopian ideal and historical “reality” and register what Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb term the “hidden injuries of class”—invisible psychic and social costs of subscription to this national ideal. Course readings include literary texts by George Foster, Frank Webb, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Skidmore, Sarah Bagley (and other New England millworkers who contributed to antebellum labor periodicals), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Harriet E. Wilson, Rebecca Harding Davis, Horatio Alger, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, and Anzia Yezierska. We will also read selected theoretical, critical, and historical articles addressing various aspects of class formation and the construction of class subjectivities in the nineteenth-century U. S. We will end the course by considering cultural representations of class in recent decades, to assess how (to quote the title of the influential series of articles in the New York Times) “class matters” in contemporary U. S. culture, and to situate U. S. class relations and identities in a global context.