American studies

Roots of America: From Colonial Settlement to the Civil War and Reconstruction

Module code: T7045
Level 4
15 credits in autumn teaching
Teaching method: Seminar, Lecture
Assessment modes: Coursework, Unseen examination

This module provides a foundational survey of the history, literature, and culture of the United States (and the colonies which preceded it) to 1900. It begins with the Columbian encounter in 1492, when two worlds were brought into sharp conflict with each other and continues through English settlement and colonisation in the 17th century to growth, expansion and the articulation of a specific American identity by the middle of the 18th century. It assesses the creation of the American nation through war with Britain and through the imaginative construction of a new political relationship between people and government.

We will then proceeed to political and cultural formations in the 19th-century republic. You will focus on why the newly formed nation should ultimately falter on the issue of slavery and why the concept of the United States and the 'Union' became such contested terms. You will examine how contested visions of America's future and its 'manifest destiny' cohered and divided the citizenry, and ultimately ask, as Abraham Lincoln so aptly put it in 1855, 'can we, as a nation, continue together permanently--forever-half slave, and half free?'

Our attention subsequently turns to the mammoth transformations to American life unleashed by the Civil War and Reconstruction; events, historian James McPherson calls the 'Second American Revolution.' Among the many topics, we will consider the emergence of a modern activist central government committed, albeit temporarily, to constitutional protected civil rights; we will address how Americans, in both North and South, understood the meaning of Union and nation after the carnage of Civil War; and how industrialists, immigrants, and union activists attempted to shape and influence the rapid growth of American urban life in the final quarter of the 19th century. Finally, we will consider the plight of black Americans as the promises of emancipation gave way to racial segregation in the South and the rise of the urban ghetto in the North.

Students will be required to approach these topics from both a historical and a literary perspective, paying particular attention to formative texts. The writings of John Smith, John Winthrop, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Fenimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Henry James, Edith Wharton (among others) will be examined as a distinct American literary culture evolves in the 19th century. That culture – like all social values in the years preceding Civil War – would split in the North-South divide of the 1850s, but in the final lectures of the module, students will examine how literary works would ultimately bolster resurgent American nationalism in the decades following the War. Students will also be encouraged to think about the imaginative formulation of American identity and American character through representations of such matters in film.

Module learning outcomes

  • Engage and understand fundamental concepts in the interdisciplinary study of American history, literature and cultural studies.
  • Acquire foundational knowledge in American history and literature from seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.
  • Interpret the social, cultural and historical contexts in which texts are produced and read.