BA History and American Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Introduction to American Literature to 1900

Course unit fact file
Unit code AMER10021
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 1
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? No



This course unit surveys American literature from its earliest periods to the end of the nineteenth century. It will introduce you to the major genres and movements of early American literature, including narratives of captivity, seduction, and escape, fiery sermons and revolutionary oratory, gothic tales, sentimental fiction, and transcendental essays, as well as poetry in a variety of forms. In particular, we’ll explore the rise of feelings—in the form of ecstatic religious experience, sentimental reform, the culture of sensation, and national sentiment—as a vital literary and cultural force in America; we’ll also track the relationship between form and reform (most especially between social movements and antebellum literary genres) and closely attend to texts and counter-texts—the ways that American writers speak back to and rewrite one another, drawing on older forms to issue new calls for change, but also recasting familiar genres and styles for their own literary purposes. We’ll read a mix of canonical and popular authors alongside and against the shifting geographical borders and cultural controversies of their time, tracking our key threads across texts that chart (and lay claim to) the development and formation of “American” literary traditions. And we’ll conclude our study by turning to the way U.S. writers sought to reunite and reinvent “America” in the aftermath of the Civil War, Reconstruction and its failure, a rapidly changing urban scene and a closing (but paradoxically expanding) frontier.


  • To introduce students to some major themes in American Studies through readings of a number of the most significant literary works written in the 'New World,' primarily North America, between 1492 and 1900;

  • To develop students' critical awareness by encouraging them to attend to variations and similarities in language, theme, tone and genre amongst the texts we will study;

  • To introduce students to the specifically American historical and social influences which find expression in the literary works of this period;

  • To encourage and develop students' writing skills (including skills of scholarly presentation) and their capacity to construct a sustained and coherent argument.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of some of the major themes in American Studies as manifested in a selection of the literature written in the 'New World,' particularly North America, between 1492 and 1900;

  • Demonstrate a basic awareness of and critical sensitivity towards the varieties of literary theme and expression most characteristic of this period in America, and particularly the part of North America that we now call the 'United States';

  • Demonstrate some ability to understand and theorize the ideological constructs of, and intersections between, race, class, caste, gender, and sexual identity, as well as religion and politics, within the space we now think of as the United States;

  • Demonstrate some ability (in the assessed essay and examination) to construct a sustained and cohesive written argument and to deploy appropriate scholarly methods of presentation;

  • Demonstate analyzing of texts; speaking in front of groups; making connections to present-day concerns; improved writing; self confidence in abilities.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students taking this unit will be able to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts. Above all, committed students will emerge from this course unit with an advanced capacity to think critically, i.e. knowledgeably, rigorously, confidently and independently.
Group/team working
Students taking this unit will be able to work courteously and constructively as part of a larger group.
On this unit students are encouraged to respond imaginatively and independently to the questions and ideas raised by texts and other media.
Students on this unit must take responsibility for their learning and are encouraged not only to participate in group discussions but to do so actively and even to lead those discussions.
Project management
Students taking this unit will be able to work towards deadlines and to manage their time effectively.
Oral communication
Students taking this unit will be able to show fluency, clarity and persuasiveness in spoken communication.
Students on this unit will be required to digest, summarise and present large amounts of information. They are encouraged to enrich their responses and arguments with a wide range of further reading.
Written communication
Students on this unit will develop their ability to write in a way that is lucid, precise and compelling.

Assessment methods

Essay 50%
Exam 50%

Recommended reading

Preparatory reading list (2014-2015)

The bulk of our readings are from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. A & B. Students are welcome to obtain these readings from other sources (or photocopy the selections from one of the copies on short-term loan in the library) but should make sure the excerpts they read are the same as the excerpts contained in the Norton. Course readings not included in The Norton Anthology will be provided to students via Blackboard or as in-class handouts.

Indicative primary reading for this course:

  • Norton Anthology of American Literature Vol. A & B (2012; Ed. Nina Baym et. al)
  • Susannah Rowson, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. Norton Critical edition.
  • Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage. Oxford Classics edition.

To prepare for this course, students will find the following secondary resources especially useful:

Barney, William L., ed. A Companion to 19th-Century America. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006.

Bauer, Dale M. and Philip Gould, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Burgett, Bruce, and Glenn Hendler, eds. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Castillo, Susan and Ivy Schweitzer, eds. A Companion to the Literatures of Colonial America. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Elliott, Emory. The Cambridge Introduction to Early American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge

         University Press, 2002.

         Marcus, Greil, and Werner Sollors. A New Literary History of America. Cambridge, Mass.:

                    Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.

Samuels, Shirley. A Companion to American Fiction, 1780-1865. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Joy Michelle Coghlan Unit coordinator

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