Eng. 263: 19th Century American Women's Narratives


The Course
Key Words


English 263a
19th-Century American Women’s Narrative
G. Stadler
Fall 2001

Professor contact info:
(610) 896-1278
Woodside 102

Course Description:

This course examines fictional and autobiographical narrative writing by women in the U. S. from the nation’s inception to the end of the nineteenth century. Its primary focus is writing by women which has responded to cultural and political crisis by conceptualizing alternative visions of the nation and its history. To this end, we will look at fiction and personal narrative which criticizes the social position not only of women, but of African-Americans and native Americans as well. We’ll also look at some early texts by African-American women, and examine how their work both responds to and proposes alternatives to the strategies engaged in by Euro-American authors. Some of the questions we’ll ask throughout the course will include: what does it mean to call a text a piece of women’s writing? What did it mean then? What do these narratives tell us about a how a different (if it is indeed so different) time would answer the question, "What makes a woman a woman?" What roles do the body, sexuality, and emotion play in writing and reading? How does one negotiate conventions of propriety to write effectively about sexuality? Can men write women’s writing? How are attributes commonly vaunted as "American"—free-spiritedness, practicality, ambition—represented both critically and approvingly in 19th-century American writing by women? How did women use literature for political purposes?

Be forewarned: there is a lot of reading in this class. The main reason for this is that people who read fiction read lots of it in the 19th century. Obviously, there was no tv or movies. "Entertainment" that you could purchase commercially generally came in the form of print. Many of these novels were printed in serial form, much like the episodes of a tv show today, in popular magazines. Families would read them together in the evening. Or women would read them alone, if they were single or spent evenings alone or were privileged enough to have leisure time during the day. (For the first time, in the 19th century, this became not uncommon among women of the middle class). Today, lots of people who work during the day read a few pages as they drift off to sleep. This wasn’t the way reading tended to be done back then. To get a feel for what reading meant to this world, you have to do a lot of it. You have to be prepared to spend lots of time with these books.

At the same time, we’re going to try to get a sense of how these books continue to mean something in the present day. A number of them continue to inspire adaptations, especially in film, and we’ll look at several of these in order to discuss how and why these narratives so effectively adapt themselves to changing times

.Required Texts and Editions (at College Bookstore):
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Penguin)
Kate Chopin, The Awakening (Norton Critical)
Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall (Penguin)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Bedford/St. Martin’s)
Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces (Oxford/Schomburg Library)
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Oxford/Schomburg Library)
Henry James, Daisy Miller (Penguin)
Susannah Rowson, Charlotte Temple (Oxford Women Writers)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Penguin)

Careful reading of each text
Class attendance and participation
Attendance at screening(s)
Short paper on each book (1-2 pp.)
Less short paper on one book (3-4 pp.)
Final Paper
Posting to website on key term for class
Regular visits to and comments on website.

On the writing assignments:

The writing you’ll do for this class stresses concision. I want everyone to write something about every book, and to use the small papers as a way to hone ideas to discuss in class. As you read each book, you should be thinking about what you’d like to write about. I’ll make some general suggestions, and you can take them or leave them. You’ll do a slightly extended version of this for one book of your choice. You don’t need to tell me what book in advance—just make sure you don’t leave this until the last minute. You might not like Contending Forces (the last book) the best out of everything we read!

The papers are due in class on the last day each book is being covered in class. In other words, the first paper, on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, will be due September 19, 2001. The second, on Charlotte Temple, will be due exactly a week after that.

There will be a final paper in lieu of a final exam—required length of 8-10 pp. In this paper you’ll be asked to consider an issue across two or three of the texts we’ve looked at.during the term. I’ll suggest some topics, and if you’d like to do something different, you must check with me in advance by the next-to-last class meeting

.Late Paper Policy:
No extensions will be granted. Instead, I will borrow a senior colleague’s system, in which each student has three free days which s/he can "spend" at any point during the semester to prolong the period in which s/he is allowed to turn in the paper. Weekend days are considered the same as weekday days (i.e. a full weekend is two days). When using these days you won’t be penalized for missing the official due date. You can use them at three different times, or all three for one paper, or any combination you like. After you have used up these freebies, however, I will impose a half-grade penalty for each day a paper is late.

The exception is the final paper, whose due date, to be announced, is final.