Hitting the Road in Search of American National Identity

January 27, 2014


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“At first I thought the material would be outdated and therefore intangible.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.”

“At first I thought the material would be outdated and therefore intangible.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.”
 Dan Cormier, Class of 2015

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

Visiting Walden Pond, Concord, MAStudents 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.

“One cannot fully understand the current debates over US foreign policy without knowing something about the history of those ideas.”
 Laura Thiemann Scales, Assistant Professor of English

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.”

Student Reflections

“This course stands out among one of the best I've taken at Stonehill, and a highlight was our visit to Plimoth Plantation. In my historical site analysis paper, I was able to analyze the way the site represents itself on the Internet and how that message might be creating or affecting the narrative the site is trying to produce; this was a nice complement to the work I do in my Marketing major.

 

The biggest take-away for me is the realization that texts that may have been written hundreds of years ago live on and continue to shape the way our society and culture views its historic lineage and national past.”

 Dan Cormier, Class of 2015

 

“I have grown up in New England my whole life, but after this class I find my own backyard is a mystery in need of exploration. American history is tumultuous. The class was tossed upon the Mayflower in Plimoth. We met Louisa May Alcott a couple of hundred years later; and while in Concord, we paid a visit to Ralph Waldo Emerson's former residence (I found a small, vacant beehive in the attic - my souvenir!).  

 

The literature with which we were engaged in class gave us as wide an experience as the places we traveled and the beaches we walked upon.  My perspective of the literary canon grew to include sermons, journals, and letters.  And I also learned if you were affluent and wanted to show off, you hammered extra nails into your front door.  It's the little things that made this class truly special.

 Thomas Sacramona, Class of 2015