“I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
–Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Letter to My Son,” (2015)
Antebellum slavery and race debates, plus two examples of slave or freedom narratives, by Frederick Douglass (excerpts) and Harriet Jacobs. Plus selected background material, including an excerpt from Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, scholarly overviews of the slave narrative genre, and a lively essay by the contemporary poet and scholar Kevin Young.
Be sure to allot several days for reading Jacobs' masterpiece. Her "loophole of retreat," an attic crawlspace, is arguably as important for American literary history as Thoreau's cabin in the woods near Walden Pond.
For Internet links to the short stories and the novella (Twain's) we'll read this week, see our online syllabus. Use the digital syllabus with an Internet connection to access 6 of the 9 stories assigned via the links provided. I've uploaded Harris' 2 other linked tales, the "Tar Baby" stories, below with my commentary. Ditto for the McClellan story assigned. All this week's stories are now all in the public domain.
See also below required selected secondary sources, essays on these authors and stories, to read for this week.
This week we study Thomas Dixon's million-selling novel The Clansman (1905), and the famous movie made from it, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). These are two of the most successful examples in history of racist propaganda at work: what made them so effective? Griffith is also important because he invented much of the visual language of film--such as using a moving camera on rails to track action scenes, and the use of a close-up shot of the face to display characters' emotional reactions to events. In Birth he used these visual techniques to support the white South's view that the nation was under siege and had to fight back.
Read The Clansman via the online link on our syllabus, then go to YouTube, search for Birth of a Nation, and select 1-2 scenes to view so you can get a sense of how the movie worked on its audience. Wikipedia's page on The Birth of a Nation is also excellent. The Hale and Schmidt essays provide background and analysis.
Some general topics for discussion this week:• Is the purpose of the novel to create a new consciousness among whites about what white power is and why it is necessary? How is whiteness defined in the novel, actually, and what kind of destiny does Dixon imagine for the white race? "In the darkest hour of the life of the South, when her wounded people lay helpless amid rags and ashes under the beak and talon of the Vulture, suddenly from the mists of the mountains appeared a white cloud the size of a man's hand. It grew until its mantle of mystery enfolded the stricken earth and sky. An "Invisible Empire" had risen from the field of Death and challenged the Visible to mortal combat..." -- from the novel's opening pages.• One of the strange paradoxes of the novel is that it shows that whites are weak and divided and confused--they have to be taught how to unite under the sign of white power: they have to learn a new narrative of racial superiority. How should we understand the fact that whites have to be taught (or shown) to be white--and that Dixon felt his novel could play the role of model teacher? (I would add that white supremacy discourse in the US in the 19th and early 20th century had a direct influence on Hitler's own version of Aryan supremacy in Nazism as a response to Germany's own Southern-like humiliation after a loss in a war. And Naziism too, just like in The Clansman, obsessed about finding scapegoats to punish as a way for whites to become unified.)• In relation to the previous topic, what kind of role does the KKK and all the stuff about mystical medieval Knights play in the novel? How is it portrayed and why is it necessary? It's one of the novel's elements that made the book so popular. (And remember that KKK units were active in many Northern and Western states, not just in the South. That includes Pennsylvania.)• Despite the novel's narrative of getting Northern and Southern whites to unite against threats to their rule, Dixon's The Clansman is also full of contradictions and absurdities. (I find parts of the novel's melodramatic plot unintentionally hilarious as well as scary.) How should we understand these contradictions, and why didn't these negatively affect most of the book's fervent readers?• In what ways does the novel help us think about what's going on in the U.S. now, in 2016, where far from becoming "post-racial" (whatever that meant) the U.S. seems to be having a new crisis of racial panic and reaction and revenge?
There are a dozen gems here: be sure to make enough time to read them all--you'll be glad you did. Many different moods, styles, and themes represented here, and the genres of comedy, tragedy, and satire. These writers are beyond awesome.
NOTE: the Katherine Anne Porter novella "Old Mortality" is also assigned this week but is not online; buy the book in the Bookstore. "Old Mortality" is assigned but the other famous stories in this Porter collection are not. (Though if you love this novella and would like to explore Porter's art further, that would make a fine final project!)
... and of course To Kill a Mockingbird features the most famous Hallowe'en scene in American literature.
PLEASE READ (OR RE-READ) TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD FIRST, BEFORE READING GO SET A WATCHMAN. Though Lee wrote Watchman first (her editor told her to revise it focusing on developing the flashbacks to when Scout was a pre-adolescent girl), your reading or re-reading Mockingbird first will mean that it's fresh in your memory when you encounter its first draft, one that by the editor deemed unacceptable for a reading audience in the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Yes, Mississippi has other great writers as well as Faulkner. We'll read work by two: Welty's The Optimist's Daughter (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Ellen Douglas' brilliant and tough novel about black-and-white friendship, ally-ship, and story-telling, Can't Quit You, Baby (1989).
Native Americans and "the South"
This seminar will be a "study hall"--a chance for you to work for several hours on your research for your final project. Most of this time you'll be working independently, but we'll also have some time when we can talk together: Prof. Schmidt and your classmates will be available if you'd like to "test" out some of your ideas on them, ask questions, etc. See syllabus for further details.
The syllabus gives detailed guidance on your final research project options. Please note that your final project 1) must be approved by Prof. Schmidt before you go ahead with your project; and 2) you must engage with at least 1-2 relevant critical essays either from our syllabus or from your own research. Questions? Ask Prof. Schmidt.
Your goals for your research project are to synthesize the ideas from this course that are most important to you and for you to do original, advanced research.