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American Narratives I: American Literature, Race and Politics

Semester and Year FA 2019
Course Number IDSEM-UG1592
Section 001
Instructor George Shulman
Days T
Time 6:20 PM - 9:00 PM
Units 4
Level U
Requirement   SOC


Open to sophomores only.


The premise of this course is that profound thinking about politics occurs in American literary art. Indeed, formally "political” writers, like Madison and Hamilton in The Federalist Papers, present a world that seems antithetical to the world presented by, say, Melville and Morrison: one depicts rational, self-interested bargaining among men in markets and legislatures, whereas the literature depicts genocide, slavery, and sexual violence, domestic life and frontier encounters. One depicts rationality and narrates progress, the other depicts madness and tragedy. The literature makes visible what political rhetoric and canonical political thought typically make invisible - the centrality of race and gender in the formation of nationhood, the operation of politics, and the deep narratives of "America." By comparing American literary art to prevailing forms of political speech and dominant theories of American politics, we ask: How do literary artists narrate nationhood? How do they retell the stories that Americans tell themselves about themselves? What is the difference between a fiction that dramatizes a world, and a treatise that makes an argument about it? What can literary art do that theory cannot? How can that art re-orient people toward the assumptions, practices, and tropes that rule their world? To pursue these questions we read Herman Melville’s  Moby Dick  and Toni Morrison’s  Beloved , while surrounding each text with historical context, typical political speech, and canonical political theory.


All Syllabi

Course Type

Interdisciplinary Seminars (IDSEM-UG)