This interdisciplinary course looks at how ideas of nature and the natural world shape early modern understandings of the Americas. Whether imagined as a new world, an earthly paradise, or a state of nature, notions of the Americas as a natural space are formative of colonialism, literature, and science in the period. Following Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas in 1492, new textual genres are invented to explore, make sense of, and shape ideas of American nature. These texts exhibit the desire for order and the wonder of variety through their own hybrid and multimedia forms, which include plant and animal catalogues, fictional utopias, essay collections, and epics. Through their acts of collecting and arranging, these texts give shape to ideas of race, sex, and species, and examine hybridity through their fascination with monsters and aliens. In their authorship and content, they reflect on the difference gender and ethnicity make in how texts about the Americas are written and received. The class will make use of the library and online collections to see the material forms of the texts we read. Students will complete a short writing assignment, a group presentation, and a final project.
According to Wendell Berry, “You don’t know who you are until you know where you are.” Yet, as we know from the fierce debate surrounding immigration today, besides the personal commitment to place that Berry rightly celebrates, one’s lived experience of where one finds oneself can also be powerfully affected by who other people think you are, where they think you should live, and where (they think) you came from. For many in the US and elsewhere, in other words, the history of lived experience of places is also often accompanied by a sense of displacement.
In order to better understand this fact of life and its relation to “environment” broadly defined, this course will examine identity, place, and displacement in a selection of US fiction and literary non-fiction published between 1865 and the present, paying special attention to how these experiences have been shaped by transformations of physical and social spaces under pressure of modernity. Besides Berry, these could include work by William Faulkner, Bobbie Ann Mason, Leslie Marmon Silko, Karen Tei Yamashita, Sandra Cisneros, Willa Cather, James Baldwin, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Zitkala-Ša as well as a recent film or two.
Assignments will include the usual critical analyses, presentations, and final exam as well as the option to write a short piece of literary nonfiction exploring your own sense of place.