Questions for 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 Enlightenment period 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):
  • 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 Enlightenment 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:

Questions for Thoreau, Walden, Day Two

  1. What reasons does Thoreau give for leaving Walden Pond? How persuasive are they? What do you think he learned from his experience?
  2. Where do you find Thoreau’s language most creative and powerful in this conclusion? Where do you question his ideas? Pick a few passages you find important and develop a thorough close reading.
  3. Link Thoreau’s concluding message in Walden to our ongoing discussion of American identity. If you were compiling a list of classic American texts, why or why not would you include Walden? What relationship do you see between Thoreau’s message about national identity and the views espoused by other authors after midterm?
  4. Use other examples from Thoreau’s conclusion to explain this statement: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” (1785). How does Thoreau define truth? How might you define it similarly or differently, and how do other authors we’ve considered after midterm compare?
  5. Today we considered Walden as a hybrid text including elements of naturalism, memoir, religion, philosophy, lyricism, and metaphor. What do you find distinctive, stylistically, about Thoreau’s writing? How does he compare to other transcendentalists?

Questions for Thoreau, Walden, Day One

Thoreau embraces the notion of self-reliance and self-liberation as completely in Walden as any of our authors have. I hope you find some good food for the soul in this narrative. If you’d like a reading companion, consider Ann Woodlief’s fantastic study text of Walden at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Questions to consider:

  1. What reasons does Thoreau give for going to Walden Pond and living in solitude there? Based on these reasons, why or why not do you think he would be attending college if he were one of your peers?
  2. Map out one of your days hour-by-hour and compare it with Thoreau’s description of life at Walden Pond. How deliberately or mindfully are you living, in comparison to Thoreau? Why or why not do you believe his lifestyle is admirable? Why or why not do you believe it would be possible to live now as Thoreau did in the nineteenth century? Compare your own personal philosophy with Thoreau’s.
  3. Thoreau has many lyrical passages that might resonate with Emerson’s vision of the American Scholar and the self-reliant person. Where do you find his language most creative and powerful? Consider trying your own hand at a transcendental passage describing one of your typical days or perhaps your own personal philosophy.
  4. In terms of American identity, it might be useful to orient Thoreau in relation to other Romantic writers. How does Thoreau seem to define Transcendentalism, and what does his perspective contribute to the evolution of American identity in our readings? This could be an interesting article to compare to Walden: “Voters Want It All – Now.”

Questions for “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.”
  • This reflection pulls together three themes from “Self-Reliance”: non-conformity, divinity, and nature. Is this a persuasive reading of the text? Where do you agree or disagree with this analysis?
  • What questions does Emerson raise for you that you’d like to talk about as a class?

Questions for Apess and Seattle

  • We began the course with indigenous stories, and these are two voices that survived the 300-year holocaust that decimated tribal communities. What stylistic or thematic differences do you see between Apess’ and Seattle’s attempts to engage a white audience in the 1800s? What choices do you see each of them making about how to present themselves and their messages to white America? See also the documentary below about Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader who tried to organize a pan-Indian alliance against the U.S. government during this time.
  • Elements of Romanticism that we’ve discussed so far include emphasis on a heroic self and emotive versus rational writing. Romantic literature is sometimes characterized by optimism about the past and/or future, as well as human nature. In what ways do Apess and Seattle respond to these 19th-century conventions? How well does Romanticism work as a classification for their texts?
  • Consider intertextual comparisons between these texts and Woolman, Franklin, Crevecoeur, Wheatley, and Jacobs. What similarities and differences do you see between the abolition and concerns about indigenous rights?
  • Today our discussion of American identity included themes like individualism, endless change, reform, conflict versus unity (the contact zone versus the melting pot), and liberty. How do Apess and Seattle speak to these themes?

Questions for Jacobs, Day Two

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

  • 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.
  • 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 culture in the nineteenth century, compared to the previous periods we’ve covered?
  • Related to this is the question we considered at the end of class today. How might we reconstruct a national identity that includes narratives like Harriet Jacobs’s, but does not lead to cynicism about national history? If you were to ask Harriet Jacobs what an appropriate metaphor for American identity might be (as opposed to Crevecoeur’s melting pot), what do you think she might say (based on examples in her text)?

Questions for Jacobs, Day One

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.


  • 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?
  • We’ve considered double voicing in Bradstreet and Wheatley. How does Harriet Jacobs respond to white prejudice while arguing (with a double voice) for abolition? One thing we considered in Wheatley’s poems is her insistence on remaining distinctly African, even while participating fully in eighteenth-century society. Does Jacobs similarly reinforce her cultural differences with her readers, or do you find her appealing more to commonalities?
  • 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?