At Washington and Lee:

The African American Historical Novel

Visit the course website or view the syllabus

What makes a novel historical? Is there a difference between history and fiction? What can fiction accomplish that history can’t?

This course examines the ways that African American authors have used the genre of the historical novel to address questions of race, national identity, and America’s fraught historical record. We begin with Frederick Douglass’s “The Heroic Slave” and conclude with Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, published just this fall. Along the way, we consider the critical tools and frameworks best suited to analyzing the genre of the historical novel, as well as the theoretical implications of blending fictional and historical narrative modes.

American Gilded Ages, Winter 2016 and 2017

Visit the course website or view the syllabus

It’s become something of a commonplace that the beginning of the twenty-first century looks very much like a second Gilded Age. Thomas Piketty calls our current moment a second Belle Epoque in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein joke on Portlandia that “The dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland,” and the Comedy Central series Another Period mines the first Gilded Age for laughs by depicting the Vanderbilt-like Bellacourt family in the reality-TV mode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians or the Real Housewives of Orange County. This course examines the connections between the literature, history, and popular culture of the early twentieth century and that of today. We consider muckraking texts, environmental writing, and the literary forms of naturalism and serialization to compare the cultural forms, historical contexts and political and social issues that resonate both today and at the turn of the previous century.

Politics and the Young Adult Novel, Spring 2016 and 2017

Visit the course website or view the syllabus

This course reads American children’s literature from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, focusing on the didactic and political functions of the genre. We consider the ways that children’s and young adult novels have engaged in political and social issues. How do novels push children to understand themselves in relation to their community and nation? To what extent do they attempt to shape readers’ political philosophies and to introduce children to previously unknown political and social dangers? How subversive is children’s literature, and how subversive should it be?

Gender and Genre: The Romantic Comedy from Jane Austen to Trainwreck (First-Year Writing Seminar), Fall 2016 and Winter 2017

Visit the course website or view the syllabus

What makes a good romantic comedy? What do we expect from the genre of romantic comedy, and how have films and novels met (and sometimes upended) those conventions? And what can the romantic comedy tell us about love, marriage, gender roles, and even feminism? This class examines the romantic comedy, beginning with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and ending with boundary-pushing rom-coms like Bridesmaids and Amy Schumer’s 2015 Trainwreck. Along the way, we consider classic screwball comedies and chick-lit, as well as theories of film and gender that help us make sense of a popular and much-maligned genre.

Region and the Real South, Fall 2015

Visit the course website or view the syllabus

William Faulkner’s 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! famously demanded, “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” We might find an answer to this demand in Houston-based UGK’s 2007 instruction to “Quit Hatin’ The South,” or in Mississippi native Big K.R.I.T’s 2013 declaration, “We make it cool to be southern.” From Faulkner to country music to southern hip-hop, the South has long been a contested space, and regional identity has been an important element of its literary production.

This class focuses on two main questions: What happens when we consider geographical region as a major element of literary analysis? And how has the region of the South—and the idea of the “Real South”—been constructed in relation both to other regions and to other (less “real”?) Souths? We consider what’s at stake in defining and representing a region before turning our attention to the myriad definitions of the “Real South”—from poet Margaret Walker’s “Southland, sorrow home” to country music’s “Boots and buckles, red clay and sand” to the drawl, funk and beat of the Dirty South.

Pretty Hurts: Race and Beauty from Claudette Colbert to Beyoncé (First-Year Writing Seminar), Fall 2015 and Winter 2016

Visit the course website or view the syllabus

Beyoncé’s 2013 album asked listeners to recognize the ways American standards of beauty can negatively affect women’s experiences. In this class, we’ll think about where those beauty standards came from, and the ways that standards of female beauty have been tied to ideas about race in America. We’ll consider how racialized notions of beauty affect identity and experience, and what happens when you don’t look like the women on the movie screen. We’ll also think about what it means to watch women onscreen and evaluate them for their appearance, and about how writers and artists challenge dominant perceptions of beauty.

Throughout the semester, we’ll develop and practice the academic writing skills that you will use over the course of your career at Washington and Lee. We’ll pay careful attention to the writing process, particularly drafting and revision, and will work together to read carefully, think critically and write clearly and analytically.

Introduction to the Novel, Fall 2014

Can novels be dangerous? Can they corrupt readers, or just rot their brains? Today, we tend to think of novels as the literary vegetables to television’s potato chips, but critics of the novel have long worried about the damage novels might cause to readers—especially young, female readers who might be shocked by scandalous content, or tempted to abandon their Bibles in favor of novel-reading, or even start to confuse real life with fiction. At the same time, readers and writers looked to novels to engage with and comment on political and social issues, making novels potentially dangerous in other ways, as well. Could a novel start a war, as Abraham Lincoln famously implied about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Could it start a revolution?

This class will be an introduction to the novel, focusing on the American novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We will look closely at the engagement between American novels and American politics from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, paying particular attention to the ways novelists addressed politically charged issues of race and gender. We will learn major terms and concepts from narrative theory and use them to analyze the novels in the course. We’ll also consider the suitability of different fictional modes—particularly sentimentalism, realism, and modernism—to the form of the political novel. We will think carefully about who read these novels, and why, and what was at stake for both reader and writer.

African American Literature, Winter 2016

At the University of Texas at Austin:

Reading Literature in Context: American Bestsellers, Spring 2013

What makes a bestseller? Why do some books achieve enormous popularity while others sell just a few copies? And why are books that were unpopular with readers often the ones that are taught in literature classrooms fifty or a hundred years later? This course will look at best sellers from the past two centuries, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, often credited with sparking the Civil War, to Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help, which has achieved both enormous popularity and significant criticism of its portrayal of race relations in the Civil Rights South. We’ll also read books that, though less popular than their bestselling counterparts, have since become part of the literary canon, and are often considered “more literary” than most bestsellers.

Along the way, we’ll talk about the different mechanisms, from newspaper reviews to Oprah’s Book Club, that can help a novel achieve best-seller status. We’ll look closely at the conditions into which each book was published, and consider the ways the historical and cultural context aided in or detracted from a book’s popularity. We’ll also think about questions of form, genre, and reception. What kind of insights can we gain by looking at work that achieves national popularity? What features define a bestseller? How is our understanding of bestselling novels enriched by readings of less popular texts? Finally, we’ll pay close attention to historical context, and to the relationship between history, cultural memory, and the work literature performs.

Introduction to African American Literature and Culture (Department of English)
Masterworks of American Literature (Department of English)
Introduction to Rhetoric and Writing (Department of Rhetoric and Writing)