American studies

Writing Early America: Literature to 1800

Module code: Q3169
Level 4
15 credits in autumn semester
Teaching method: Seminar
Assessment modes: Coursework

This module will introduce you to the major trends and texts of colonial America from the Iroquois Indians and Christopher Columbus through to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. These are not simply 'authors,' in the modern sense, writing 'great books' but diverse voices whose class, gender, race, nationality and religious persuasion influence the sense they make of America, and of themselves, in their writing. For example, some texts articulate ancient native traditions and myths without the benefit of a written tradition, while others are trying to come to terms in literary ways with experiences of migration to an unknown and wild place, captivity by the Indians, conflict, and slavery. Questions of national identity and the role that literature plays in constructing and communicating an 'American experience' are therefore central to the module.

We will look at the writing of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, beginning with Native American accounts of creation, the travel journals of Columbus, and an account of the conquest of the Aztec empire. American literature in this early period does not come in the usual forms of fiction, poetry, and drama that we are used to studying in European literature, nor is all of it written in English. We will be reading a variety of forms, such as Native American stories, accounts of conquest in South America and settlement in the English colonies, Puritan sermons, autobiography, political tracts, captivity narratives, poetry, and letterssome in translation, others in their original English. While these texts are not all recognisably what you might think of as 'literature,' they are the founding documents and genres of the Americas and their influence is felt in American culture to the present day.

Module learning outcomes

  • An understanding of the interrelation between literary modes of writing and other public discourses.
  • The ability to analyse these different forms of discourse and to use a professional critical vocabulary to describe them.
  • Knowledge of major trends in American literature before 1800 in their historical and political contexts.
  • The ability to communicate such lines of argument, understanding and analysis in written form.