Questions for Cabeza De Vaca (El Conquistador Conquistado)

What do you do if you’re a failed conquistador, but still want to get royal funding for future explorations? Find out in La Relación.

Questions to consider:

  • Based on what we’ve read so far, including The Relation, how might you characterize this colonial period: as a period of discovery, contact, or conquest?
  • How do the echoes of Genesis in La Relacion compare to the cultural assumptions we discussed in Columbus and Harriot?
  • Where does Cabeza de Vaca allude to Exodus 3 and Numbers 13:17-33? What reasons might he have for doing this? What other connections do you see between La Relacion and the Bible?
  • As you’ll read in the biographical sketch, some scholars see Vaca’s Relación as the first “American” narrative, in that his identity is transformed into something new by the end of his journey. In what ways does he seem to be changing in this first excerpt?
  • What makes Cabeza de Vaca a reliable or unreliable narrator? Where might we read against the grain of this narrative, the way we did with Columbus and Harriot by considering how their audiences (and/or transcribers) influenced the text?
  • Scholars have described this narrative variously as an immigrant tale, a captivity narrative, a mestizo text, a history, and a saint’s memoir (see hagiography and beatification and canonization). What do you think the appropriate literary classification for The Relation should be? Why?

This History Channel dramatization of texts like La Relacion is a helpful companion to the reading:

See also National Geographic’s adaptation of Guns, Germs, and Steel:



Columbus and Harriot

  • Both authors have brief biographical sketches in the anthology. Which insights about their lives do you find especially helpful in understanding their perspectives and what their purposes might have been for writing these texts? 
  • Which description of the colonial period do you think is best supported by Columbus’s and Harriot’s texts: a period of discovery, of contact, or of conquest?
  • What influences of the creation story in Genesis do you see on Columbus’s and Harriot’s interpretation of what they see in the New World? What tensions exist between their understanding of what they observe and the interpretation that a Native American might offer (based on what we know from the origin stories we have discussed)?
  • Columbus’s manuscript might be categorized as a journal of discovery, rather than an origin story or sacred text. What stylistic differences do you notice between his text and the origin stories? What kind of literary conventions do you think Columbus is trying to follow in this journal that are different from other genres?
  • What mythical (symbolic or interpretive) elements do you see in Columbus’s and Harriot’s narratives? What historical elements do these texts have? Which examples illustrate the differences between myth and history most clearly?
  • To make Columbus’s journal real to us now, consider the following as you read: substitute “oil” for “gold,” “insurgent” for “savage,” and “freedom” (or “democracy”) for “salvation.” In what ways does Columbus’s narrative compare to our own time?

How accurate is the following animated film in representing Columbus’ travels and legacy, compared to what you see in the text of Columbus’ journal?

Origin stories

Everyone should bring reading notes on Friday over “Wohpe and the Gift of the Pipe,” “The Origin of Stories,” and Genesis 1-3. You’ll find the Lakota and Seneca stories in Volume A of the Heath Anthology (see the syllabus for page numbers). Be sure to read the sample notes on Blackboard for examples.

Questions to consider for notes:

  • What do these three stories tell you about the beliefs or values of the Lakota, Seneca, and European cultures they represent? How do you read Genesis 1-3 in comparison to the other oral narratives (keeping in mind that the Hebrew creation narrative began as an oral narrative before it appeared in print)? 
  • In what ways do you think all three stories can be read as a myth, based on our definition of “myth” in class today? In what ways can these three stories be read as histories? How do you distinguish between the two ways of reading these texts?
  • What are some important themes and symbols in each story? 
  • In the stories for Friday, what complicating aspects of authorship do you find, or what questions might we raise about the reliability of these narratives? Be sure to look at the footnotes in the anthology, as they help clarify sources for the written accounts of the oral narratives.

If you’d like to read more origin stories, see the recommended readings in the syllabus or other creation stories on the online readings page.


The website is active again after lying dormant for two years. I’ll post discussion questions, sample notes and journals, film clips, and other resources here throughout the semester. Please help me maintain the page by reporting any dead links and suggesting new materials. If you are a student in English 236 for Fall 2014, please bookmark this page for easy viewing throughout the semester.

Research bibliography after midterm

Here are the sources presenters have used after midterm. Please note that in MLA style the following citations would be double spaced continuously and wrapped lines would be indented.

Two sources I recommend for research for the midterm exam:

  • The Literature Resource Center (Go to the Library website –> Databases A-Z –> L –> Literature Resource Center)
  • The Authors and General Resources pages on this website

Amacher, Richard E. “Chapter 4: Political Journalism.” Benjamin Franklin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 12. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Oct. 2012.

“Analysis: Benjamin Franklin’s Life, Personality, and Contributions to America.” Talk of the Nation. 13 June 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Oct. 2012.

Anderson, Douglass R. “Henry David Thoreau.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 270. American Philosophers Before 1950. (2003). Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Nov 2012.

Bickman, Martin. “Transcendentalism.” The American Renaissance in New England: Second Series. Ed. Wesley T. Mott. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 223. Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

Branch, Michael P. “Ralph Waldo Emerson.” American Nature Writers. Ed. John Elder. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996. Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

Brians, Paul. “Romanticism.” Humanities 303. 11 Mar. 1998. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.

Davis, Todd F. “The Narrator’s Dilemma in ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener': The Excellently Illustrated Re-Statement of a Problem.” Studies in Short Fiction 34.2 (1997): 183-92. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 193. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Doloff, Steve. “The Prudent Samaritan: Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ as Parody of Christ’s Parable to the Lawyer.” Studies in Short Fiction 34.3 (1997): 357. Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Elliott, Mark. “An Overview of ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

“Harriet A(nn) Jacobs.” Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 Oct. 2012.

Miller, Jakob. “Two Truths in Thoreau’s Inconclusive ‘Conclusion.'” Hanover Historical Review.  Hanover College History Department, n.d. 1995. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

Newman, Lance. “Thoreau’s Natural Community and Utopian Socialism.” American Literature 75.3 (2003): 515-544. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 3: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864).” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature. 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 5 December 2012.

—. “Chapter 4: Walt Whitman (1819-1892).” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature. 25 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Walt Whitman – Song of Myself (Day Two)

Questions to consider as an extension of our conversation today:

  1. Why does Whitman consider himself to be immortal? What does he mean by describing himself as “deathless” in section 20, and how does this theme of immortality continue in the later sections?
  2. We considered today that Whitman adopts multiple narrators and points of view throughout the poem. What examples of this do you find in the last half?
  3. There are more long lists of images and panoramic scenes in the later sections. What patterns emerge in these extended catalogues of American life and culture? In what ways are these glimpses of people, animals, and the earth particular to the nineteenth century, and in what ways are they timeless?
  4. In our discussion of Whitman’s universalism or inclusiveness today, we considered his juxtaposition of good and evil, virtue and vice, spirit and body, and other opposites that he strives to unite and resolve into one another. How does this theme play out in the rest of the poem?
  5. What do you make of the historical or dramatic sections, such as Whitman’s commemoration of The Alamo?
  6. How do you believe Whitman defines God?

Walt Whitman – Song of Myself (Day One)

This poem is a vast territory to explore, so it will be useful to watch for echoes of earlier texts, especially in preparation for the final exam. Whitman responds to Emerson’s call for originality in American thought and literature, but he also shows an awareness of history, so “Song of Myself” is a very rich touchstone for nearly every conversation we’ve had this semester about the origins and evolution of American culture.


  • What does Whitman’s poem reveal about his understanding of American identity?
  • How does Whitman’s sense of self compare to the visions of self-reliance and non-conformity articulated by Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau?
  • How does Whitman’s view of human nature compare to Melville’s and Hawthorne’s?
  • The publication date for our text is 1855. Some of the major historical issues we’ve discussed for this period include race relations and women’s rights. How does Whitman address these themes?
  • What seems most distinctive about Whitman’s view of nature? How would you characterize his view of the natural world in relation to other authors we’ve read?
  • Stylistically, “Song of Myself” is groundbreaking for its experimentation with free verse, as opposed to the formal rhyme and meter used by all of the other poets we’ve discussed this semester. However, this doesn’t mean that the poem is formless. Two qualities to watch for are lyricism and juxtaposition. What examples of these do you find? What other literary techniques give this poem structure or purpose?