Questions for Columbus and Casas

  • 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? Who are their audiences? How might these audiences influence the tone or content of their narratives?
  • Which description of the colonial period do you think is best supported by Columbus’s and Casas’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 Casas’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 and Casas’s texts might be classified differently from an origin story or sacred text. What stylistic differences do you notice between their texts and the origin stories? What kind of literary conventions do you think Columbus and Casas are trying to follow in a letter or a history that are different from other genres, such as origin stories, essays, sermons, ___?
  • What mythical elements do you see in Columbus’s and Casas’s narratives? What historical elements do these texts have? Which examples illustrate the differences between myth and history most clearly?

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

Questions for Iroquois, Navajo, and Hebrew creation stories

  • What do these stories tell you about the beliefs or values of the Iroquois, Navajo, and Hebrew peoples? How might your reading of Genesis change (if at all) if you consider it as one of many creation stories?
  • What are the major themes or important symbols of each story? We began considering this today with the Yuchi story, noting the importance of natural imagery in creation (sea foam), the pattern of contact and separation, as well as the concluding message of peaceful cohabitation.
  • What questions do these stories raise for you? How might they help you identify common ground between Indigenous cultures and European settlers (who ascribed to the Hebrew creation story)? What cultural tensions between Europeans and Native Americans might you predict, based on these stories?

Welcome – Fall 2016

I’m looking forward to returning to this survey after two years. I’ll be updating the links and resources as I’m able, but I appreciate help in identifying links that don’t work or other errors on the site.

Other updates:

  • All page numbers and other textual references are from the 8th edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature this year.
  • While I’ve made some changes to the syllabus, I’ve not had time to completely overhaul the Authors page to match this year’s reading list. I’ll do my best to make sure that the Resources tab points to other sites with pages for individual authors.

Questions for Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Sections 1-32

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?

Questions for Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener”

  • So far, we’ve considered two branches of American Romanticism: Gothic literature and Transcendentalism. Where does Melville fit in this conversation? What is Romanticism, according to Melville? Where does his style seem most Romantic, in the literary sense?
  • What do you learn about the narrator from his observations of the other characters? What makes him reliable or unreliable? How does the narrator’s personal philosophy compare with Thoreau’s?
  • Bartleby is perhaps the most enigmatic character we’ve seen. What do you learn about Bartleby through the contrasts that Melville sets up with Ginger Nut, Turkey, and Nippers? How do you explain Bartleby’s behavior? What transformations do you see in his character throughout the story?
  • What do you think you would have done if you had been faced with the narrator’s dilemma? What do you think might have been the most ethical response to Bartleby’s situation?

Other themes we’ve been considering for exam topics:

  • Human nature: good, evil, conflicted?
  • Nature (Is there nature in “Bartleby”? If not, what does its absence suggest?)
  • Liberty and equality
  • Stylistic ancestry (Paine – Emerson – Thoreau or Franklin – Irving – Hawthorne)
  • Reason versus feeling
  • Conformity versus nonconformity

Film adaptations:

Questions for Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”

Irving’s blurring of fact and fancy becomes even more complex in Hawthorne’s work. Hawthorne sought to take the reader to an imaginative space that he described in the prologue to The Scarlet Letter as a moonlit room of the mind “where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” The Romantic writer, he believed, should “dream strange things, and make them look like truth.”


  • How can we distinguish fact from fancy, or the real from the imaginary, in “Young Goodman Brown”?
  • Some were saying today that Rip Van Winkle was a likable and perhaps comic character, but not a figure one would emulate. How does Goodman Brown compare to Rip Van Winkle in this regard? What does Hawthorne hope to illustrate through Brown’s character?
  • Irving’s images of the transformed hotel in “RVW” (George III – Gen. Washington) shows the emergence of symbolism nineteenth-century American fiction. What examples of symbolism do you seen in “Young Goodman Brown”?
  • Both Irving and Hawthorne illustrate the maturity of American literature, as the nation had finally begun to develop its own mythology or explanation of its origins. Why do you think “Young Goodman Brown” is an important American story? What is Hawthorne saying about Puritan culture in this story?
  • How does Goodman Brown’s view of nature compare to that of other characters and other authors we’ve discussed?
  • Hawthorne is a master stylist, as well. What do you admire about the literary artistry of this short story? How does Hawthorne compare, stylistically, to Irving? What stylistic contrasts do you see between Hawthorne and other writers?

For fun: Sometimes I use the following songs to illustrate Goodman Brown’s frame of mind. What might you add to the soundtrack of this story if you were filming it?

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: