An Introduction to the Final Project
Now that we have read and reflected on a long series of individual texts and thought about the ways in which they seem to be engaging in a conversation about the nature of the American identity, it is time for us to enter the conversation. The final project will offer you an opportunity to present your own vision of one way in which the American literary tradition has contributed to the construction of the American identity, and to offer your own argument about what texts should be considered a vital part of the American literary canon. In your log for this week, offer your own thoughts about what topics, texts, and resources you believe might provide a good starting-point for your investigations. You'll find below an explanation of the canon, a description of the resources I have prepared as a foundation for your inquiry into the canon, a recommendation about how to work with these resources, and finally a more specific explanation of the questions you should answer in your log.
What is a Canon?
I have referred throughout the semester to the idea of a "canon" of American literature, and I have also talked with you about the fact that for over twenty years literary scholars have been debating how best to "reconstruct" the canon in order to make it more inclusive. But what has seemed a vital act of restructuring to some Americanists has seemed like simple destruction to others, and even those who have agreed that our national literary tradition needs to be re-examined have not always agreed on what should be included in the new version. Although this topic has come up from time to time in our discussions, right now you may be scratching your head and trying to remember "What's a canon?" The most practical answer I have ever encountered appeared in a listserv discussion on the web, when a Polish professor posed the question to a group of American literature teachers. Here is what one respondent wrote:
Hello, Marcin. You asked if there is a book called the "canon." No, there
isn't. The canon simply refers to a generally-agreed upon list of authors
and their works which are considered (by writers, editors, professors, etc.)
to be the standard works in any particular field. Thus there is a group of
works which might be called an American literary canon, an American
historical canon, etc. And believe me, authorities in these fields DO NOT
agree on which works to include. It's the source of continuing, heated
debate, and the literary canon, for instance, has undergone a gradual shift
in the last 10 years (but actually starting much earlier) to include more
writers of color, more women, etc. So, to talk about the "canon" as some
dragon to be slain is an oversimplification which ignores the term's
flexibility and contingency. If you want to get an idea of what works are
generally agreed upon as part of the literary canon, compare several recent
college-level anthologies, particularly those used in entry-level survey
courses. You're likely to see many of the same authors in all of them:
Hawthorne, Whitman, James, Cather, Poe, Twain, Chopin, Ellison, Ginsburg,
etc. (And some of these authors are interesting cases in themselves, and
were not always considered "major American authors.") You'll also see some
authors, particularly more recent ones like Toni Morrison (though I think she
probably reached canonical status after her Nobel Prize), included in some
collections and not in others. This is the living, breathing
Selected Preliminary Resources
If you are going to enlist in the "canon wars" as they are sometimes called, you will need some training and plenty of ammunition. The first step in your preparation will be to do some reading in preparation for our workshop on Tuesday. Here are the resources that are at your disposal:
1) Who is this American? The Search for an American Identity?
We began the semester by reading excerpts from a variety of texts that seemed to respond to Crevecoeur's immortal question, "Who is this new man...this American?" The selections on that page offer various definitions of what it means to be an American. It would probably be a good idea to revisit that page now.
2) What is this American Literature? The Search for an American Voice
This is a new page I have just constructed that will offer you yet another assortment of excerpts from texts. This time the excerpts illustrate the nature of the discussion of what kind of literature might best serve our nation.
3) What is this American Canon? Whose American Literature?
A final page, "Searching for an American Canon: Whose American Literature?," offers a brief introduction to the debate over what factors should determine whether a work should be "canonized" and therefore studied in courses like "Survey of American Literature."
All of these pages are linked from Who is this American? The Question of Identity in a Nation of "Many" at the E Pluribus Unum site. The URL is: http://www.assumption.edu/ahc/Intros/introamericanid.html
A Suggested First Step:
When you work with the resources on these pages, why not employ the kind of reading practice that I've described as the typical approach of scholars beginning a new project? In other words, take a look at the list of the contents, do some quick skimming through large sections of material, and pause to read in a thoughtful way through the materials that seem most useful, either because they offer important insights or raise particularly perplexing questions.
As you read, try to identify recurring themes--and contested issues (disagreements)--that you regard as particularly significant. Also keep track of the texts that you find most useful to your thinking, either because they develop positions which you support or because they offer arguments with which you disagree. These are precisely the kinds of resources you may want to draw upon and quote in your final project.
The Question for Your Log for Our Project Workshop:
For your final project, you will be offering your own analysis of approximately three texts from different periods of American literature by explaining both how those texts contribute to the discussion of one (or more) central issue in the construction of our national identity, and why those works should be considered an essential part of the American literary canon.
Use your log for this week to offer some preliminary thoughts about your initial plans. What topic(s) might serve as the focus for your project? What literary works might you want to serve as the basis of your analysis? What qualities do you think should determine whether a particular work should be included in the canon, and why do you think these particular works might qualify? What commentaries on the American identity, American literature, and the American literary canon do you think it might be useful to incorporate into your project? (I'm thinking particularly, for example, of the works excerpted in the web pages of resources I have provided; however, you are certainly welcome to include other sources as well.)
Important Things to Remember:
1) YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO SUBMIT A FORMAL PLAN FOR YOUR PROJECT. Instead, this is a chance for you to think aloud, and to sketch out some preliminary plans about where you might want to start your inquiry. So relax, take a deep breath, and give yourself some room to read and think in. We can use Tuesday's class to exchange ideas, answer questions and clear up some confusion, and to collaborate in developing workable plans for your final work. Feel free to write logs that are full of thoughts, questions, and problems. You are not really offering a map of your expedition so much as a drawing of your base camp.
2) BUILD ON YOUR EXPERTISE AND FOLLOW YOUR CURIOSITY. Have you developed a strong interest in some aspect of American literature and life as a result of your work on earlier projects? Why not use this project as an opportunity to pursue your question in a deeper and broader way. Real scholarship is exciting because it allows you to follow your curiosity and develop deep answers to your real questions.
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