Possible exam themes for OCR A level ELit: American Literature


I have found this list of questions from the University of North Carolina. Whilst the University are asking very specific questions at times, the themes under consideration are useful and give students a good idea of the nature of questioning which we can expect in an examination context…


American Literature Before 1900


  1. Although writers like Emerson and Whitman articulated visions of self-reliance and individualism, American authors before 1900 evince a range of perspectives on these stances. Discuss how three of the writers from this period negotiate between conceptions of individualism and community. In responding, you might consider questions such as the following: Are these attitudes linked to social identities of gender or race? Do the writers you discuss express unambivalent attitudes? Do you see changes occurring over time?


  1. In The Lay of the Land and The Land Before Her, Annette Kolodny has argued that early American male writers constructed and represented the landscape as virgin territory to be explored, enjoyed, or exploited, while early women writers were more likely to attempt the domestication of wilderness via gardens and fenced areas, thereby bringing “home” with them across the country. How do later (i.e. 19th-century) writers represent the landscape and/or nature? What, if anything, is the relation of the landscape to ideologies of “Americanness”?


  1. Writers like Mark Twain and Kate Chopin offer us complex portraits of American families in flux. Focusing on three writers discuss how “the family” is represented in the literature of this period. What questions and challenges do writers pose for the American families?


  1. In “The Prologue [To Her Book],” Anne Bradstreet observes:


I am obnoxious to each carping tongue

Who says my hand a needle better fits,

A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,

For such despite they cast on female wit:

If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,

They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.


Yet Bradstreet goes on, apparently paradoxically, to acknowledge the limitations of women writers in contrast to their male counterparts. How do women writers before 1900 negotiate between assertion of their authority (author/ity) and the requirements to conform to ideologies of gender? How are we to read contradictory discourses like those of Bradstreet and her successors?


  1. Robert Frost once wrote, “You can’t be universal without being provincial, can you? It’s like trying to embrace the wind.” Discuss the ramifications of this perspective for American poetry before 1900. What, if any, regional variations exist? How are they articulated? How do poets like Whitman and Dickinson, for example, negotiate between the apparent polarities of “regional” and “universal”?


  1. Native American critic and writer Paula Gunn Allen discusses the Western tendency toward purity and its prohibition of mixing, whether of genre or of race. Responding to miscegenation and other forms of racial border crossings, many 19th-century texts are intensely interested in the subject. Discuss how several texts incorporate strategies that resist the cultural norm of segregation and others affirm this norm. What, if any, interventions into the dominant mind-set occur? Are the writers always unambivalent about the requirements of “purity” or the transformations of “hybridity” that they articulate?


  1. In “The Author to Her Book,” Ann Bradstreet formulates what might be called a maternal model of creativity for American poetry. Discuss how—or if­—this maternal model is expressed in the work of her contemporaries and successors. If the model is abandoned, what substitute(s) do other poets offer?


  1. Recent criticism has located the beginnings of modernism well back into the nineteenth century. What texts on the list, if any, reveal what we might call the “symptoms of modernism,” and in what specific ways do they forecast (or resist) its flowering?
  2. Several texts on the list of American literature before 1900 are relatively recent additions to an expanding canon, among them Hope Leslie, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Douglass’s Narrative, The Rise of Silas Lapham, The Awakening, and The House Behind the Cedars. What kind of conceptual shift does the inclusion of texts like these signal in constructions of the canon? For example, what concerns, problems, and perspectives do they add? How do they alter our understandings of texts such as The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick? In responding, you may choose any set of “recently canonical” or “traditionally canonical” texts from our list, not just those mentioned above.


  1. In the latter part of the nineteenth-century, Howells asserted the need for realism in fiction and enlisted numerous writers, both male and female, in the project of rewriting earlier “sentimental” texts (Uncle Tom’s Cabin being the touchstone example). How did later writers’ representations of the “real” deviate from those of their earlier counterparts? Is romanticism, for example, unmarked by realistic narrative? How do the “real,” the “truthful,” and even the “autobiographical” function in this earlier context, whether in a “romance” like The Scarlet Letter or in a “poem” like “Leaves of Grass”? Conversely, is the later realistic novel uncomplicated by earlier modes of representation?


  1. Recent feminist critics like Lillian Robinson, Janet Tandy, and Paul Lauter have begun to articulate the complexities of “working-class writing,” asking questions directed toward the identity of the author, the intended audience, and the formal characteristics that such writing encompasses. Where, and how, are class and class difference articulated in some of the major texts of the nineteenth century? How does the construction of class in the period intersect with representations of “American” and “Americanness”?


  1. While many early writings explore issues of individualism and freedom, other texts focus on captivity and imprisonment. Discuss this aspect of American literature and the forces that created, shaped, and perpetuated this phenomenon.


  1. Discuss those aspects of Romantic poetry that make it simultaneously tenable and untenable to the pre-modernistic sensibility of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Which Romantic poets display such features and how do Dickinson and Whitman both incorporate and reject them?


  1. Before landing at Plymouth Rock, John Winthrop preached the sermon Modell of Christian Charity, in which he envisioned an America that would be “as a Citty upon a Hill . . .[where] the eyes of all people are upon us.” Discuss works such as Franklin’s Autobiography and Douglass’ Narrative in terms of Winthrop’s American dream.


  1. Authors such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville employed masking as a literary device to reflect the myriad ambiguities and ambivalences inherent in early American cultural life. Explain.


  1. One of the ideals that from the beginning has helped define America’s notion of itself is the concept of community. Choose one writer from the Colonial period, one from the Enlightenment, and one from the Romantics and discuss the ways in which each writer defines, explores, and challenges that ideal. Consider how the concept evolves through the work of the writers you choose.


  1. Although the traditional literary canon remains decidedly white and male, women, African Americans, and Native Americans made significant contributions to the literary endeavor before the twentieth century. In addition, as Toni Morrison points out, American fiction has defined itself in dialogue with what she calls the Africanist presence. Choose one work in which the role of black, woman, or Native American helps define and propel the white, male central figure and analyze how the dialectic between the two works.


  1. Explore the issues central to your reading of Moby-Dick, using the lens of Marxist, psychoanalytic, or feminist criticism. As you write, consider how reader response theory helps you predict, revise, fill in gaps in ways that support your critical interpretation.


  1. How would you teach Emerson to make him relevant to a group of college students in a beginning level American literature class or in a composition class? What essays would you choose? How would you approach this philosophical agenda? How would you consider issues of style?


  1. Using at least three examples, define the spiritual biography as an early American genre, and describe the theological context from which the genre derived its rhetorical significance. Then very briefly discuss the effects of this genre on later American poetry and fiction.


  1. For the American writer the tension between personal autonomy and communal dependence and interdependence is palpable from the Puritans through the Romantics. Discuss this conflict in its various forms as it is defined and reflected in the work of three significant American writings in different contexts and in different genres.


  1. Views on the purpose, content, and techniques of education have varied greatly. Using at least three writers from different literary periods as examples, discuss how changes in religion, economics, and politics have affected beliefs about education.


  1. In some American fiction, the frontier can be seen to function almost as a character in its own right. From your own perspective, describe three authors’ presentations of this “character,” comparing and contrasting your interpretation with that of at least three major critics of frontier literature.


  1. Discuss what it is in two of the following works that essentially embodies or encapsulates the literary achievement of their respective authors, marking—as it were—the authors’ major contribution to American literature: The Last of the Mohicans, The Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


  1. One of the central conflicts in the nineteenth century is the difficulty of mediating between technology—the scientific, technical, and progressive—and nature—the pastoral, artistic, religious, imaginative. Choose three 19th-century works—at least one non-fiction—and write an essay discussing how the conflict is embodied, explored, mediated in each work.


  1. You are creating your own curriculum for a course in pre-Civil War American literature. Giving the course a thematic focus if you wish, choose the five writers (at least one a poet) who will most help your students understand the conflicts and cultural changes embodied in the nineteenth century before the Civil War and explain how they will help.


  1. At the time of Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886, she was unknown while Bryant and Longfellow had towering reputations as American poets. During the last century that situation has reversed itself: Dickinson is universally considered one of the greatest American poets while Bryant and Longfellow are seen as having primarily historical interest. Write an essay on Dickinson’s poetry in the context of the poetry of Bryant and Longfellow. Does their poetry have anything in common? What qualities of Dickinson’s poetry entitle her to the reputation she has achieved? Do Bryant and Longfellow deserve their relegation to secondary or tertiary status? Your essay should be grounded in a consideration of particular poems.


  1. Major critical debates have centered around questions of historical context: to what extent does context illuminate a text, what is the best way to read works in history, and what kind of history counts?


  1. How are visions of the American landscape connected to visions of America’s future such as those expressed by the terms colonization, expansion, nationalism, exceptionalism, and Manifest Destiny? Choose four to six works, at least one from the Colonial period, and show how the depiction of the natural environment creates, implies, or opposes a vision of national mission.


  1. Slotkin and others have claimed that the captivity narrative is the founding genre of American literature, while Gates and others have claimed that the slave narrative has the same foundational status for African-American literature.


Using two or three texts from the captivity tradition and two or three from the slave narrative tradition, 1) examine the validity of the theoretical concept of a “founding genre” particularly as applied to literature written in North America, 2) discuss the protagonists’ or narrators’ developing understandings of their identities as well as their alter readers’ identities in order to determine if these rhetorical expressions of ethos bear out a distinction between American and African-American traditions. Do these traditions oppose one another, overlap, or influence one another? What is the best way to describe the relationship between these two traditions?


  1. Define what you consider to be two or three primary tenets of pragmatic theory (James Peirce) and then examine how those tenets connect to American literature and culture in the period of the American “Renaissance” and in colonial, Puritan times.


  1. One of Emerson’s legacies has been a sense of American self-reliance, an optimistic ideology of belief in the triumph of individual will over any obstacles. Explain why Emerson has left this legacy, if it’s a fair assessment of his position, and briefly describe its effect on American culture after the Civil War—perhaps using one work to explain that effect.


  1. Judith Fetterley has observed that “realism [is] the dominant term in virtually all writing about literature after the Civil War.” She makes this observation in the context of an essay that proposes regionalism, understood as an empathic, character- and place-centered (rather than primarily plot-driven) genre, as an oppositional term. As Fetterley herself acknowledges, regionalism has been viewed as a term of diminishment because of its customary affiliation with female writers. Discuss the regionalist elements in three texts by male writers, and include in your discussion a set of reflections on how we might (or might not) consider these elements in opposition to “realism.”


  1. “Masculinity is no more natural, transparent, and unproblematic than ‘femininity.’ It, too, is a socially constructed role, defined within particular cultural and historical circumstances…” With this observation in mind, discuss the representation(s) of masculinity in the nineteenth century by focusing on (though not limiting your discussion to) three texts on your list. You might consider such questions as: Do male and female writers imagine masculinity differently? What are the various representations of masculinity within a work or works by a single author? What, if any, “cultural and historical circumstances” inflect the works you’ve chosen to discuss? What moments in each text reveal the “unnatural,” “opaque,” or “problematic” elements of masculinity?


  1. One of the commonplaces of recent feminist theory has been that men tend to value individualism while women tend to value community. Discuss the complexities of these associations, as well as the limitations of such binary thinking. You might consider such questions as: How well do African American writers fit this pattern? Are there texts in which both individualism and community are valued? Do the associations vary according to time period (i.e., how do earlier texts compare with later ones)? In your discussion, while you should focus on three or four texts from your list, you may bring in additional examples to support your perspective.


  1. A topic that preoccupies many early American writers is education: its proper content, forms, and goals have been the subject of both implicit and explicit discussion in all genres (from Whitman’s poetry to Emerson’s essays) and in all periods (from Bradstreet’s poems to Chesnutt’s fiction). Do these writers have any common ground on the subject? Is there a consensus about the proper education for an “American”? What critique of education do they offer? Focus your discussion on a few texts, drawing additional examples from the list as a whole.


  1. Writers like Hawthorne, Southworth, Twain, Jacobs, and Chopin complicate the conception of family in a variety of ways. Focusing on some of these writers or others that seem equally interesting to you, outline several models for the family in earlier American literature. What models seem best to their authors? Are these models socially sanctioned or are they subversive of cultural norms for their historical moment? What do such representations of the family add to our understanding of the writer and/or of the period?


  1. “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” claims Frances Harper in an oratory that seeks to engage white women in activist causes on behalf of the African American. Social reform motivates literature in various forms (Whitman’s poetry, Fern’s essays, Stowe’s novels) and with diverse goals (abolition, women’s suffrage, temperance, prison and industrial reform). Yet earlier 20th-century literary critics often dismissed such literature based on its “political” (rather than “aesthetic”) qualities; as Susan K. Harris has highlighted, the principal question asked of a literary text has been, “But is it any good?” Discuss how several works in the nineteenth century negotiate between these apparent polarities. Questions that you might consider include: What formal features do the works call upon to advance their political goals? How do these features participate in (or reject) “aesthetic” purposes? What differing “aesthetics” do “political” texts call upon to advance their goals?


  1. Double your trouble, double your fun.


In his well-known essay, “‘Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey,'” Leslie Fiedler calls attention to the prevalence of male pairs in American literature and popular culture: Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, Ishmael and Queequeg, Huck and Jim, Tonto and the Lone Ranger, Batman and Robin. He explores the dynamics of these bonded pairs, emphasizing especially racial and homoerotic implications. In your essay, give your own explanation of how a male pair works in a major work—what characterizes the relationship, what the implications are for race and class, what draws the two males together, how important the pair is to the work as a whole. Then, use two other works to answer the following question: Is there a similar kind of pairing among female characters? If so, explain the dynamics of whatever pairs you come up with. If not, suggest what you see as the typical pattern of female bonding in pre-20th-century American literature.


  1. Midway along the journey of our life

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

For I had wandered off from the straight path


How hard it is to tell what it was like,

This wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn

(The thought of it brings back all my old fears),/A bitter place!…


How I entered there I cannot truly say,

I had become so sleepy at the moment

When I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.


“Lost in the forest” is one of the great archetypes of world literature, as is evident in these, the opening lines from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. As here, the forest operates on two levels of meaning: literal and metaphorical. Explore how three authors develop this archetype. Choose at least one author from the pre-1800 period and at least one from the post-1800 period.


  1. Write an essay in which you explore the relationship between religious faith and articulation of an individual identity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In your response, you might consider such questions as: What room has there been for criticism of traditional belief systems? What kinds of criticisms of faith have emerged, and for what reasons? What alternatives, if any, have been posed? Make sure you use at least two texts from each century.


  1. The tension between individual liberty and civil society (or, in slightly different terms, between individuality and community) has been manifest in colonial and 19th-century literature since the advent of English settlement in the New World. Write an essay in which you explore this tension and its relationship to a set of broader social issues. You may define the time period and the social issue(s), but make sure your essay discusses at least three texts.


  1. There is a strong utopic bent in writings in and about the New World that continues through the nineteenth century. But to many non-white writers, British North America and later the United States are no utopias. Instead, America is more likely to be described as dystopic. Discussing the works of at least 4 non-white writers, write an essay in which you explore these dystopic writings.


  1. Gloria Anzaldúa, among others, has focused critical attention on the notion of the borderlands: an interstitial space often occupied by transgressive, extraordinary, or marginalized individuals. More recent critics have articulated the notion of textual hybridity: a concept of textuality that includes genre mixing, juxtaposition, and experimentation. Explore the relationship—alliances and/or conflicts—between writers with mixed or outsider identities and the textual forms in which they choose to express themselves. In your response, focus on at least three different writers.


  1. Benjamin Franklin was not the first, nor the last, to underscore the importance of hard work to American identity. Yet various writers before 1900 express concerns with how the idea of work is constructed—what counts as work, for example—and how it is rewarded. In an essay that discusses at least three writers, compose an argument for—or against—the development of a consistently “American” perspective during the period to 1900. That is, consider whether or not we can view American writers’ attitudes toward work as progressing toward a more modern attitude (which you might want to define), or whether there are merely nodes of consistency within identity groups such as white women or African Americans.


  1. In Lydia Maria Child’s pseudo-science fiction story “Hilda Silfverling,” a young woman’s body becomes the site of scientific experimentation involving cryogenics and time travel. As the scientific community exploits and cruelly uses her heroine to further their research, Child crafts a portrait of the fear and distrust experienced by those who envisioned the technological advances during this time as a threat. This conflict between nature and technology is a central concern in both fictional and non-fictional 19th-century writings. Choose three 19th-century works and explore how each represents this conflict and whether or how each attempts to resolve it.


  1. At the end of “The Searchers,” John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards stands in a doorway—a liminal space separating him from the rest of his family. Ethan finally decides to not enter the house and instead retreats, a solitary figure deciding to remain alone, unassimilated into society. This image of American Individualism has become a mythic icon, representing some of the more admirable and, simultaneously, disturbing qualities of the “American Character.” While many early American writings valorize this idea of rugged individualism, there are equally as many portraits of ambivalence towards this character trait. Discuss the acts of mythogenesis that led to the creation of the concept of American Individualism and how writers of both fiction and non-fiction have acknowledged the inherited dangers of this phenomenon.


  1. Sarah Orne Jewett, Catherine Maria Sedgewick, and Sarah Piatt are all new additions to the expanding canon (as well as reading lists) of 19th-century American literature. Clearly these texts represent a conceptual shift in our thinking about canonical texts and authors, as well as the construction of the canon itself. Construct an argument for the inclusion of these texts in the canon: Why are these examples of literature that enhance our understanding of the American Experience and are not just a nod to political correctness? What problems, perspectives, and cultural values do they address and examine that would make them not only stand alongside, but also increase our understanding of, canonical texts by, for example, Melville and Hawthorne?


  1. You are designing a course in 19th-century American literature. Keeping in mind that you must feature works from a broad spectrum in genres (memoir, poetry, the novel, etc.) and that you also must make sure your students are exposed to the work of women, African Americans, and Native Americans, choose six writers and explain why you would like to focus your course on them. Also, choose a course theme and explain how it will help your students organize their thoughts on the major issues and conflicts of the nineteenth century.


  1. Negotiation between individual liberty and the need for social cohesion was a particular concern during the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. Write an essay in which you explore this tension and its relationship to broader social and political issues. Discuss at least three texts, making sure you include at least one each from the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods.


  1. The spiritual autobiography, the captivity narrative, and the slave narrative share common qualities, while diverging in important ways. Write an essay in which you explore their generic similarities and differences. You will need to discuss relevant examples from each genre to support your argument.


  1. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the story of early America was told as essentially the story of the Puritans in New England. In the past two decades, however, competing narratives of early America have emerged that encompass exploration and settlement by the French and Spanish, among others, as well as the settlement of the British South and the island colonies; Native American scholars are likewise developing narratives of early America from the perspective of the indigenous peoples. Write a coherent essay in which you explore these competing narratives of the New World and how they contradict, complement, or complicate the New England model. This is a question that I have purposefully left broad; you will need to focus your response. Make sure you discuss at least three texts from outside the sphere of influence of New England.


  1. Work becomes an especially vexed issue in the nineteenth century, as individuals struggled to make work meaningful while grappling with the effects of slavery, industrialization, and the rise of a commercial culture. Write an essay in which you explore how writers grapple with these issues. Make sure you discuss at least three texts.


  1. African American and Native American writers have been among the staunchest supporters and the severest critics of Christianity. Choose four writers and explore their critique of Christianity: Are there substantive differences in either the rhetorical style and methods or the content of the critiques written by black and Native American writers?


  1. Today, the most revered poets from the nineteenth century are, without doubt, Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman had risen to prominence by the end of his life, but Dickinson was virtually unknown at the time of her death. Instead, the most admired poets of the nineteenth century were poets such as Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, and Sigourney. Write an essay in which you place either Whitman’s or Dickinson’s poetry in the context of poetry popular in the nineteenth century. What similarities or differences do you find in terms of aesthetics, style, themes, politics, etc.? Make sure you support your argument with reference to specific poems. Please note that for the purpose of comparison you are free to discuss popular poets other than those listed above.


  1. Toni Morrison has argued that American literature—and fiction in particular—has defined itself in dialogue with what she calls the “Africanist presence.” By “Africanist presence,” Morrison doesn’t mean simply the existence of black characters. Rather, she is pointing to how racism, fear of a racial other, belief in a racial hierarchy, etc. have shaped American literature. Is it possible to make a similar claim about the relationship between American literature and a Native American presence? Select four works to explore this question. Make sure you select at least one work each from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.


  1. In his moving funeral address for his friend and one-time student, Henry David Thoreau, Emerson spoke of him as a “true protestant,” and claimed that “No truer American existed than Thoreau.” What might he have meant here? And how might we use these descriptions to speak of other key writers of the nineteenth century, particularly Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman? Explore this question with regard to Thoreau and three other writers. Make sure you use at least one of the writers from the list above; you may select the remaining two writers.


  1. The “woman question” loomed large for many writers in the nineteenth century. What exactly was the question? Choose at least three of the following (or any others you find useful) and explore the varying ways these writers attempted to answer the woman question: Hawthorne, Alcott, Harper, Douglass, Stanton, Gilman, and Fuller (from your R & C list).


  1. Several writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century talk about masks, physical and literal, as a way to hide or highlight their otherness. Examine this idea linguistically and rhetorically across the literature. Choosing at least three authors from your list, demonstrate negotiations of otherness through the authors’ choices of genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) and writing styles (including the use of dialects if appropriate).


  1. From the time of the earliest colonists, community has been seen as an essential component of the American experiment, and yet it has often seemed to be in conflict with another important component of the American character, that of individual self reliance. Choose any of the following (or others of your choice) to write about the conflict or conversation you find between ideas of community and individualism: Emerson, Thoreau, Dunbar, Rowlandson, Jacobs, Dickinson, and Whitman.


  1. You are designing an undergraduate American literature course that examines authors’ voices. Choosing texts from your list, discuss a unit for that course that explores the various uses of the first person singular, the “I.” How are these writers employing the “I” differently? What are their motives in constructing these writer-narrator relationships? How are they using these constructs for literary ends and/or political ones? What readings would you include, and what writing assignments would you ask the students to do in order to help them discover these differences?


  1. Discuss how the use of very specific historical events can contribute to our understanding of literature. In particular, explain the limits and possibilities of relating only one event to one text using instances of political or racial violence to illustrate your views through interpretations of at least three of the following texts: Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity…; Mather’s Good Fetch’d Out of Evil; Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans; Emerson’s “Nature”; Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; Douglass’ Narrative of the Life…; Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Whitman’s “Passage to India”; and Melville’s “Benito Cereno” or “Billy Budd.”
  2. In Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams defines “structure of feeling” in the following terms: “There is frequent tension between the received interpretation and practical experience…[T]he tension is often an unease, a stress, a displacement, a latency: the moment of conscious comparison not yet come, often not even coming…There are the experiences to which the fixed forms do not speak at all, which indeed they do not recognize.”  From this perspective, the representation of “feeling” in literary texts can point to political principles and formations for which there is no official recognition and/or can point to kinds of experience that are not registered within available legal and administrative discourses.  Looking at three of the texts from your list, at least one by a writer of color, how does each use the portrayal of feeling as a way of commenting on the relation between race and the official discourses of the state?
  3. Race is one of the most prominent ideologies of embodiment in the U.S., both historically and currently.  However, it is not the only one, nor is it understood in isolation from other ways of conceptualizing and experiencing the physicality of personhood.  Looking at three of the texts on your list, at least one by a writer of color and at least one before 1776, how does their representation of race intersect with their portrayal of other forms of embodiment, and how do those other forms of embodiment help the text in defining notions of racial identity, explicitly or implicitly?  Here are some questions to consider: How do the texts depict the relation between race and gender?  In what ways is race gendered and gender racialized?  How is sexuality – in terms of forms of desire or otherwise – at play in the text’s ways of imagining race?  To what extent is class envisioned in bodily terms, or itself given a racial cast?  Are there kinds of bodily identity or experience that circulate in the texts that are important to their depiction of race but that do not fall into the identity categories we usually use (such as gender, sexuality, and class)?  Are there notable changes over time?
  4. White writers have offered sustained critique of modes of racism, calling for the reconsideration of institutionalized policies that exploit and dispossess people of color – such as arguing for the abolition of slavery or against Indian removal.  These forms of anti-racism, though, can end up reaffirming what they appear to want to deconstruct, mobilizing the feelings of readers in ways that reinforce the centrality, authority, and privilege of whiteness or of white-dominated institutions.  Looking at three of the texts from your list, examine how they address this dynamic.  Here are some questions to consider: What kinds of feelings do such white-authored texts try to generate?  How do such feelings continue to serve the interests of whites?  Are there examples of white anti-racism that avoid this pitfall?  Where and how do writers of color address this dynamic, explicitly or implicitly highlighting the limits of (at least certain forms of) white liberalism?  Are there notable changes in anti-racist discourse over time?
  5. One of the things you likely will be called on to do as a professor is to teach a survey course.  While such a class requires that you cover a great deal of material, tying texts from different periods together through focus on a shared set of themes or questions can help give the course greater coherence.  Imagine you were teaching a survey of literature in the American colonies and the pre-Civil War U.S. Choosing three of the texts from your list from different periods – pre-1776, 1776-1820, and 1820-1865 – discuss how you would teach them in ways that emphasized the relation between race, affect, and embodiment.  Here are some questions to consider:  What particular moments would you highlight for students?  What kinds of questions might you ask them?  How would you bring back in earlier texts when discussing later ones?
  6. As the Anti-Slavery Bugle reports Sojourner Truth’s speech to the Akron Women’s Rights convention, Truth affirms: “I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any many, and can eat as much too, if I can get it.” Compare and contrast Truth’s representation of gender to that of three writers from your list.  In your answer, you might consider such questions as: What does gender “equality” mean?  What does “strength” mean?  How is gender represented differently in male and female writers’ work?  In Euro-American, African American, and/or Native American writing?


  1. Twentieth-century critics, among them D. H. Lawrence, have rebuked the moral (or moralizing) tendency of some earlier American literature. Writing of Benjamin Franklin, Lawrence claims, “Man is a moral animal. All right. I am a moral animal. And I’m going to remain such. I’m not going to be turned into a virtuous little automaton as Benjamin would have me. . . . I am a moral animal. But I am not a moral machine. I don’t work with a little set of handles or levers. The Temperance-silence-order-resolution-frugality-industry-sincerity-justice-moderation-cleanliness-tranquillity-chastity-humility keyboard is not going to get me going.” Discuss how three writers in this time period handle morality.


  1. Writing of female slave, Claudia Tate has contended, “motherhood was an institution to which they had only biological claim.” Compare and contrast the representations of motherhood in three writers. How do the mother’s identity and her personal circumstances determine the shape of her mothering?  What does it mean to be a “good mother” for different women?  How does the concept of motherhood, or the “good mother” change over time or place?  How do writers use style or form to address the question of motherhood?


  1. Contemporary ecocriticism has until recently focused primarily on twentieth-century American texts, yet critics are now acknowledging the important role played by earlier writers other than Thoreau in highlighting the importance of nature to human well-being. Writers on your list who offer representations of the proper (or improper) relationship between humans and nature include John Smith, Harriet Jacobs, Sarah Orne Jewett, Sarah Winnemucca, Charles Chesnutt, and Zitkala-Ša, as well as Emerson, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Whitman.  Focusing your discussion on at least three authors, compare the ways in which these authors conceptualize humans’ relationship to nature (or, if you wish, “the land”).  One of these authors should be a canonical writer.


  1. Emily Dickinson’s poetry is often taught by establishing her radical differences from her contemporaries. But what about her similarities?  Does her work share any commonalities with that of her contemporaries?  How can reading her contemporaries help illuminate Dickinson’s aesthetics, style, themes, politics, attitudes towards art?  Write an essay in which you explore Dickinson’s similarities with her contemporaries and suggest how reading three other writers might help illuminate Dickinson’s work.  You are welcome to use other poets, but you are not limited in your discussion to poetry.


  1. Write an essay in which you explore the changing aesthetics of poetry from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Be sure to discuss the works of at least four poets as examples, using at least one poet from each of the three centuries.


  1. Paratexts, as Gerard Genette defines them in his work of the same name, “are those liminal devices and conventions, both within and outside the book, that form part of the complex mediation between book, author, publisher, and reader: titles, forewords, epigraphs, and publishers’ jacket copy….” Paratexts shape our interpretation of a literary work but are not part of the text proper.  Paratexts are occasionally created by the author of a text under consideration, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s extended preface to The Scarlet Letter in “The Custom House” or the “Extracts” that precede Moby-Dick or the various prefaces that Whitman wrote over his long career.  At other times, paratextual materials such as prefaces and afterwords are written or included at the instigation of others, such as the prefaces that accompany the narratives of Mary Rowlandson, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs, or the poetry of Anne Bradstreet.  Write an essay in which you explore how paratextual materials have shaped interpretation of four texts.  You may consider any of the works listed above or supply your own.


  1. In many nineteenth-century American prose works, the domestic environment is not the safe haven imagined by theorists of “separate spheres ideology,” but is rather a site of terror and/or oppression. Discuss this issue with regard to American literature using at least four works.  At least one of the works must be by Edgar Allan Poe.


  1. American writers from Bradstreet to Oskison emphasize the family, and in particular, the patriarchal family, as central to the creation of America (and American literature). Yet wide variations in family structures occur, even in early novels such as Hobomok, The Last of the Mohicans, and Hope Leslie, as well as in slave narratives and poetry. Focusing on four writers, discuss how each complicates the idea (and ideal) of the male-centered family.  What questions or challenges does each pose?  What, if any, alternatives does each offer?  What is the role of women and children in each?  Are families conceptualized differently in texts by white women or writers of color?  You may respond to any or all of these questions or formulate your own.


  1. Write an essay in which you explore how religious faith and/or spirituality have shaped the ways in which three writers view nature and the natural environment. You may choose the writers from your list, but be sure your response includes at least one writer from the pre-1800 era.


  1. Paratexts, as Gerard Genette defines them in his work of the same name, “are those liminal devices and conventions, both within and outside the book, that form part of the complex mediation between book, author, publisher, and reader: titles, forewords, epigraphs, and publishers’ jacket copy . . . .” Paratexts shape our interpretation of a literary work but are not part of the text proper.  Paratexts are occasionally created by the author of a text, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s extended preface to The Scarlet Letter in “The Custom House,” or the “Extracts” that precede Moby-Dick, or the various prefaces that Whitman wrote over his long career.  At other times, paratextual materials such as prefaces and afterwords are written or included by the instigation of others, such as the prefaces that accompany the narratives of Mary Rowlandson and Frederick Douglass, or the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Write an essay in which you explore how paratextual materials have shaped interpretation of at least three texts by different authors.  You may consider any of the works listed above or supply your own, but be sure to include the work of at least one poet in your discussion.


  1. Recent criticism has located the beginnings of modernism well back into the nineteenth century. What texts on the list, if any, reveal what we might call the “symptoms of modernism,” and in what specific ways do they forecast (or resist) its flowering? Be sure that you discuss poetry as well as prose.


  1. As the Anti-Slavery Bugle reports Sojourner Truth’s speech to the Akron Women’s Rights convention, Truth affirms: “I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it.” Compare and contrast Truth’s representation of gender to that of three writers from your list. In your answer, you might consider such questions as: What does gender “equality” mean?  What does “strength” mean?  How is gender represented differently in male and female writers’ work?  In Euro-American, African American, and/or Native American writing?