Washington Irving – “Rip Van Winkle”

We’re backtracking historically here from Emerson and Thoreau to set up a discussion of Romantic fiction in Irving and Hawthorne. So be sure to check the biographical sketch and the historical info in the footnotes and at the end of the text. Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” marks a transition from the Age of Reason to American Romanticism, though we’ll see some conventions from both periods in the text.


  • What elements of Gothicism or Romanticism do you find in Irving’s story? See this link for a definition of Gothic fiction (See other links to Romanticism on the right side of this page): http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/novel.htm
  • Among the writers we’ve studied, who do you think might have been Irving’s influences, stylistically? And which writers in the course readings contrast most dramatically with Irving’s style?
  • We began the course with discussions about myth and history that will help us notice some of the subtle nuances in Irving’s work. Why does Irving include the italicized preface and postscripts? What relevance do those authorial comments have to the story?
  • What does “Rip Van Winkle” tell us about American identity? Which moments in the story seem most symbolic of an emerging American identity? How do Irving’s views compare with those of writers from the Early National Period?
  • Nature is a theme that could encompass all of the course material. How does Irving portray the natural world in “Rip Van Winkle,” in comparison to other writers? What relationships exist between humans and nature, according to Irving?

Here’s a cartoon version for fun (what does this leave out from the original?):

And a big band song from the 1940s:

Non-conformity, Divinity, and Nature in “Self-Reliance”

“Self-Reliance” is not a structured essay so much as a jazz performance. That is, Emerson’s purpose is less to deliver a focused argument than to improvise, to riff on the themes of independence and originality in an extended thought experiment. I enjoy his sentences the way I enjoy complicated guitar solos that enthrall by virtue of their sheer unpredictability. Despite Emerson’s high-flown rhetoric and complicated diction, clear themes emerge throughout the essay, namely: non-conformity; the divinity within every individual; and nature as a touchstone for personal awakening.

Like Anne Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Morton, and other dissenters in the course readings (one thinks of John Proctor’s character in The Crucible, as well as the revolutionary spirit of Franklin’s writing), Emerson sees the integrity of his own conscience as his highest moral obligation. “[I]mitation is suicide,” he writes. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” (1164). The innocent confidence of a child, who “conforms to nobody” (1164), is thus a trait for adults to emulate. “Nothing at last is sacred,” he claims, recalling Thomas Paine’s denunciation of self-deception through conformity, “but the integrity of your own mind” (1165). Emerson recognizes that dissent is difficult, that it inspires backlash from the majority: “For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure” (1167). However, honest living requires disobeying public opinion when it runs counter to one’s own conscience. External social pressures, he argues, are “in conspiracy against the [humanity] of every one of its members” (1165). We see this most poignantly in political parties, or “communities of opinion,” which require blind adherence to beliefs that, when insisted upon without reflection, become thoroughly dishonest. We should beware of the “prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere” (1167) and should, instead, have the courage and self-respect to discover our own truths, even if this means bucking the majority or perhaps changing our minds about something we once believed to be true.

If we have the courage to seek our own personal truths, Emerson suggests, we will stand a better chance of discovering the image of God within ourselves. Rather than being “clapped into jail by [our] consciousness” (1165), we ought to consider that “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards” (1164). In fact, divine truth can only be revealed by “a divine man” (1164). When we respect ourselves enough to trust our own instincts, we recognize our inner lives as holy ground. Emerson likens this awareness to God’s commandment to Moses to remove his shoes in the presence of the divine. When others are amazed “by a simple declaration of the divine fact” through our courageous expressions of personal and original wisdom, Emerson writes, “[b]id them take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within” (1173). This is the reverse of Calvinism, which holds that human nature is inherently and irreparably corrupt without the providential intervention of irresistible grace. Instead, Emerson and other Transcendentalists see human nature as fundamentally holy. Corruption of that original divinity, according to this view, comes from conformity, not from innate sinfulness. While it initially seems contradictory to assert that human nature is unified while arguing for self-reliance and non-conformity, it is this fundamental divinity that Emerson sees as uniting all of humanity through “the resolution of all into the ever blessed ONE” (1173). That is, our shared divinity is not a false unity like social conformity. It is a shared essence linking us to the sublime, an essence we can each discover and express in our own way if we remain true to our natural instincts.

The way to discover the sublime and, consequently, our own divinity, is through the physical world. As Paine views natural laws as “the true theology” (discoverable through science), so Emerson sees nature as a touchstone for the spirit: the external reminder of our internal holiness. “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence,” he writes, “which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth” (1171). Even the written word should be invigorated by the “smell of pines” and “the hum of insects” (1168). It is the “aboriginal Self” (the most primitive and earthy identity) that helps us discover the origin of genius, which Emerson believes is “Spontaneity or Instinct” (1170). This is Calvinistic dogma turned on its head. Wilderness takes the place of the city on the hill as the source of redemption. True sophistication and refinement, to Emerson, comes not from perfecting human nature but by discovering it in its original, perfect form. This is why he argues that “[i]solation must precede true society” (1173). Solitude, open space to think and feel and revel in the full range of sensory experience, is the way to discover one’s own divinity and, consequently, the way to enrich the lives of others. Close connection with nature teach us to trust ourselves, which allows us to then invigorate our friends and neighbors with fresh ideas. Like Jefferson’s defense of religious diversity, Emerson’s essay is a call not only for tolerance of other perspectives but for real celebration of difference as the only way to keep lifting ourselves closer to the sublime.

Emerson is not arguing for anarchy or selfishness at the expense of social good. Rather, he believes fidelity to oneself, to one’s own grasp of the sublime, engenders a stronger and more honest social bond. In brief, Emerson’s message is this: “[T]hat a greater self-reliance,–a new respect for the divinity in man,–must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views” (1175). This search for self-knowledge and affirmation of divinity within every human heart liberates us from the passive trust in providence that we see in Rowlandson’s narrative. Instead, Emerson believes that the vigorous exercise of free will and free intellect allows us to “[chain] the wheel of Chance” and “always drag her after [us]” (1180). In sum, according to Transcendentalism, self-trust gives us power over our individual destinies. This is the idea that drove the American colonists to declare independence from Britain, the spirit behind the abolitionist cause (a theme we see quite clearly in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), and the energy that mobilized American women to defend their right to social and intellectual equality.


Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Self-Reliance”

“Self-Reliance” is nearly as classic a reference in American Literature as Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” It’s fascinating that two iconic texts, which have shaped American thinking into the 21st century occupy such opposite philosophical poles, Winthrop stressing the submission of the individual to the social/spiritual body and Emerson emphasizing the preeminence of the individual in contradistinction to social convention.

Questions to consider:

  • What elements of Romanticism and/or Transcendentalism do you find in “Self-Reliance”?
  • Romanticism and Transcendentalism both have religious associations, though these tend to vary from author to author. What do you see as Emerson’s view of religion, based on “Self-Reliance”? He refers to Emmanuel Swedenbourg near the end of his essay, so this link to The Swedenbourgian Church could be useful for context.
  • What does Emerson mean by “the ever blessed ONE” and “the Supreme Cause”? Try to explain this with other examples from his essay.
  • Compare Farmer James or Linda Brent to Emerson’s principles of self-reliance. How is Emerson’s view of personal liberty and self-sufficiency similar to or different from the views espoused by the other writers we’ve covered after midterm? How does your own view of liberty and independence compare to Emerson’s?
  • What does “Self-Reliance” reveal about Emerson’s view of American identity?
  • What does Emerson mean when he writes that “Shakspeare [sic] will never be made by the study of Shakspeare” (1635). Explain this passage by connecting it to at least three other assertions or passages in “Self-Reliance.”
  • What questions does Emerson raise for you that you’d like to talk about as a class?

Harriet Jacobs – Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Day Two)

Just a reminder: Friday journal writers will need to journal either for Monday or for Wednesday this week, since we’ll have another reading circle on Friday. Otherwise, we’ll follow our usual journaling schedule for Monday and Wednesday writers. I’ve been encouraging you each week to pick one aspect of your midterm exam that you might try to target for improvement in your journal: integrating examples with more context, following ideas to clear and specific conclusions, using signal phrases, developing stronger intertextual connections.

Questions to consider (answer one or two in depth in the journals):

  • Using this overview of the slave narrative from Donna Campbell, explain what you see as the driving purpose of Jacobs’ narrative. How might we distinguish further between the captivity narrative and the slave narrative? For depth, consider contrasts with Rowlandson and Vaca.
  • Using this overview of Romanticism, track some of these elements in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Other than the spontaneous expression of feeling that we see in this narrative, what other elements of Romanticism do you see? For depth, contrast Jacobs stylistically with at least one other author.
  • What questions does this narrative raise for you that you’d like to explore as a group? Explain in as much detail as you can, using textual examples to clarify the questions you’d like to explore in discussion.
  • What does Jacobs add to our discussion of gender in American literature? What, specifically, does her perspective teach us about women’s experience of motherhood, love, social power, or identity in the nineteenth century? Compare and contrast with other authors for depth.
  • This is a useful study question from Paul Reubens: “Jacobs ends her narrative “with freedom, not in the usual way, with marriage.” Comment on the implication here that freedom matters more to Linda Brent than marriage. To what extent does Incidents suggest that the “life story” is different for enslaved women than for free (white) women?”
  • With Farmer James and Linda Brent, we see the emergence of major characters in American literature: symbolic figures who represent cultural and historical themes and metaphors, rather than literal historical accounts told in the first person. Why do you think this shift might be significant in American literature? In other words, what might the emergence of a symbolic literature based as much on imagination as fact, tell us about American society or national identity in the nineteenth century, compared to the previous periods (17th and 18th centuries, in particular) we’ve covered?

American Identity – Three Film Clips

The PBS series Faces of America, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., connects to many of the readings we’ve discussed recently, including Letters from an American Farmer and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

See the first episode, “Know Thyself,” here: http://video.pbs.org/video/1409106688

You can watch the full FRONTLINE series on Jane Elliott’s blue eyes / brown eyes experiment in 1968 online here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/

Another interesting parallel to Jacobs’ narrative is the research on Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. This talk by Annette Gordon-Read lays out some of the research and its implications for American memory:

Harriet Jacobs – Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

The publication date for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl fast forwards a hundred years from Woolman’s abolitionist essay, yet the narrative begins with recollections of the Revolutionary War and recalls experiences from the early nineteenth century, so the transition from the eighteenth century to Jacobs is smoother than it might appear. I hope, also, that this will give us some thematic continuity by continuing our discussion of Wheatley today.

Anyone who has not journaled this week should journal by Tuesday night on the first section of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (see syllabus for page numbers). Please make an effort to improve some aspect of your writing from the midterm exam: integrating quotations fluidly, sandwiching examples with context and evidence, close reading, or thoroughly explaining intertextual parallels.


  • Intertextual echoes between Woolman, Wheatley, and Jacobs will be useful in extending our recent discussions of slavery. All of these writers agree on the subject of slavery. How do their voices and strategies differ? Double voicing might be a specific technique to compare and contrast between the three.
  • In terms of style, it will be useful to read Jacobs alongside Crevecoeur, because even though she appears to be writing a factual account, she conceals her identity with the pseudonym “Linda Brent.” Why might she do this, and how is this stylistically similar to and different from Crevecoeur’s use of Farmer James as for his narrator’s persona in Letters from an American Farmer?
  • Captivity narratives and slave narratives both have a common emphasis on oppression and liberation. How are these two genres different? Consider Rowlandson’s earlier narrative as a possible comparative text.
  • Jacobs was writing during the heyday of American Romanticism. In many ways, Romanticism offers a shift from the “freezing reason” of the Enlightenment to more lyricism, more freedom of expression, and more emotion. What evidence do you see of this shift toward Romanticism in Jacobs’s narrative?
  • What does Harriet Jacobs teach us about American identity?

Phillis Wheatley – An American Genius

Hope you enjoy Wheatley’s poems. As always, the biographical sketch in the anthology is a helpful introduction. Wheatley’s poetry is astounding given the fact that she was kidnapped at an estimated seven years of age (with no knowledge of English) and began writing poems just four years afterward. Even more astonishing is her publication of her first poems in 1767 at approximately age thirteen or fourteen.

Questions to consider:

  1. “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is Wheatley’s most controversial poem. It is also frequently cited as an example of her double voice. To whom might Wheatley be speaking in this poem? How does she code her more subversive message, and what might that coded message be? How does her message in this poem compare to Letters from an American Farmer?
  2. “Thoughts on the Works of Providence” resembles Bradstreet’s “The Flesh and the Spirit,” particularly in Wheatley’s personification of Wisdom, Chaos, Reason, Love, and others. What does this poem tell us about Wheatley’s theology, in comparison to other writers we’ve read recently, such as Edwards, Paine, and Crevecoeur? How might she define “God”? How does her view of nature relate to her theology?
  3. Close reading of the personified characters (see the capitalized and italicized names) will also help us get at the heart of this text. See this link for more on Phoebus. What is Wheatley trying to accomplish by dramatizing these characters? See, especially, the conversation between Reason and Love.
  4. Wheatley relies heavily on nuance in this poem, creating imagery that requires interpretation. What nuances seem most significant to you? More specifically, why does she emphasize light so strongly?