Walking along the shore of Walden Pond, having just read Thoreau’s description of the whistle of the morning train, and then hearing the commuter rail speed by on those same tracks, Dan Cormier realized how wrong he was about early American literature.
“At first I thought the material would be outdated and therefore intangible. I thought I would lose interest; I couldn't have been more wrong.”
Like all humanities courses at Stonehill, Living American Literature helps prepare students to be engaged citizens and awakens them to the many ways individuals and institutions use language to persuade us, says Laura Thiemann Scales, assistant professor of English.
The class also serves as evidence of Stonehill's deep commitment to meaningful innovation within the liberal arts curriculum.
“We analyze ideas about American national identity and the place of literature in our culture, past and present. At the start of the semester, we spend some time thinking about how to define ‘origin stories’—reading Native American creation stories, writings by European explorers and settlers, and Puritan literature. Then we read a wide selection of literature from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including stories, novels, poems, letters, political tracts, essays, and autobiographies.”
Weekend trips to historical sites in Plymouth, Salem, Boston and Concord provide context and help students situate literature in the history and culture of its time. Scales asks students to pay attention to the ways in which museums and curated sites presented themselves and what kinds of narratives they told.
“The sites must all strike a delicate balance in how they engage with myths and stereotypes that visitors might bring with them. They all tell a story about American literature, and they all make a claim about the importance of past cultures for today’s society,” she says.
Connecting the Dots
Students come into the course familiar with some authors already. Most of them have read some Poe and Hawthorne, perhaps Emerson and Dickinson; they have passing familiarity with the era of the American Revolution and the history of slavery in America. But other things are new to most of them: Puritan literature, Native American origin stories, some of the reform literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Yet those texts are still vitally relevant.
“In September we read John Cotton’s sermon ‘The Divine Right to Occupy the Land,’ which claims the Puritans are God’s chosen people and America the promised land. That same week, Vladimir Putin published his op/ed piece in the New York Times in which he took issue with President Obama’s claim of ‘American exceptionalism’—the very idea that Cotton and his fellow Puritans helped establish. When Obama says America is ‘exceptional’ and Putin retorts, ‘God created us equal,’ their seemingly simple language is saturated with cultural history.
“One cannot fully understand the current debates over U.S. foreign policy without knowing something about the history of those ideas,” says Scales.
Encountering Counter-Historical Perspectives
In addition to museums and curated sites, Scales and her students spent a lot of time walking around cities and towns that are simultaneously historical and modern. They stood on the steps of a house in Beacon Hill that had once harbored fugitive slaves. They bought tea in a café that had once housed a segregated Baptist church. They walked up a hill in Plymouth that was once the original road of the settlement, but is now just an ordinary street.
“Poems and novels often take us into closed domestic spaces or into the private thoughts of people not on the main stage of American history, and they provide an essential counter-history to public speeches, newspapers, and political tracts,” says Scales. “Historic spaces can do that too. It’s just as important to know how women and children spent their time in the kitchens of Plymouth as it is to hear the words that were preached from the pulpit. It’s just as important to know how ordinary African Americans lived their lives in 19th century Boston as it is to read the words of famous abolitionists.”
Scales’ students were eager to immerse themselves fully in the experiential learning opportunities provided by the course.
They engaged Plimoth Plantation’s role players in theological debate. They asked searching questions of tour guides. They happily traipsed around Walden Pond in the December chill, happily tromped up and down Beacon Hill to seek out the homes of abolitionists and women’s rights activists, happily joined in for the reenactment of a play at Louisa May Alcott’s home.
“I am hoping these experiences helped students to see how we can read historical narratives all around us, not just in museums,” says Scales. “I am very grateful for the support of Stonehill’s Classroom Innovation Grant, which allowed me to spend time last summer planning the field trips, and which covered the cost of students’ admission to all the sites.”