BA American Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Novel Democracy

Course unit fact file
Unit code AMER33131
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


What does it mean to consent to government by others? In the aftermath of the American Revolution (1775-1783), writers in the United States were concerned with this question. Revolution and democracy swept the European and American world, but many new democracies failed. Even when they survived, they left unanswered questions. How might women function politically? What would become of the enslaved? Would indigenous people be incorporated into new nation-states?


The rise of the novel played a central role in these questions. Novels enabled readers to imaginatively explore the subjectivity of others. Novels were part of a transformation not only in how people read for entertainment, but in how people understood concepts such as liberty, freedom, and autonomy. In this module, students will read a range of novels from the nineteenth-century United States. We will explore, in short, how modern democracy was itself a novel political formation.



The aims of this course are:

  • To examine critically a range of novels and aesthetic debates from the period between 1783 and 1914.
  • To understand the political questions surrounding concepts such as consent, liberalism, democracy, and republicanism in the United States in the period following the Revolution.
  • To become adept at using historicist methods, combining close reading with understanding of the historical and social contexts of fiction.
  • To develop skills of critical thought, close analysis, and advanced abilities at working with printed source materials.
  • To develop skills in independent research, writing, and critical argument.



Indicative list or readings (subject to revision)


1.) Liberalism, Democracy, and the Problem of Consent: The History of Constantius and Pulchera (1789)

2.) The political gothic: Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly (1799)

3.) Loyalty: James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821)

4.) Fidelity: Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie (1827)

5.) History: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

6.) Family: William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853)

7.) Empire: John Rollin Ridge [Cheesquatalawny], The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854)

8.) Secession and Reaction: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Who Would Have Thought It? (1872)

9.) Redemption: Mary Edwards Bryan, Wild Work (1881)

10.) Coup d’état: Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition (1901)

Teaching and learning methods

This class will have a one-hour weekly lecture and a two-hour seminar. Students will write two short essays (a literature review and a historical context/archival essay) that culminate in a third and final essay that extends the research conducted on the prior two projects.


Materials including archival sources and lecture slides will be posted on Blackboard.

Knowledge and understanding

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

  • Possess an understanding of the relationship between literary aesthetics and political culture, particularly the cultures of liberalism, republicanism, and democracy
  • Understand the nineteenth-century history of the novel as a popular genre in the United States
  • Understand how structural factors—such as wealth inequality, chattel slavery, or gender inequality—shape political cultures

Intellectual skills

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

  • Possess skills of critical interpretation, synthesis, and interpretation
  • Develop skills of close reading and historical analysis
  • Engage critically with secondary material and scholarly debates

Practical skills

By the end of this course, students will:

  • Be comfortable working with large bodies of source information
  • Possess a competent register for interpreting fictional works in the context of both aesthetic traditions and historical conflicts
  • Be able to write a researched work of scholarship that combines theoretical, critical, and primary source texts.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Ability to carry out independent research: identifying relevant materials, synthesizing, producing cogent reports.
  • Development of verbal skills, through seminar-based discussion
  • Ability to work independently

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)

Research essay plan




Literature review


500 words

10 percent

Archival sources essay


2,000 words

40 percent

Final research essay


3,000 words

50 percent


Recommended reading

1. Liberalism, Democracy, and the Problem of Consent: The History of Constantius and Pulchera (1789)

2. The political gothic: Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly (1799)

3.  Loyalty: James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821)

4. Fidelity: Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie (1827)

5. History: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

6. Empire: John Rollin Ridge [Cheesquatalawny], The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854)

7. Secession and Reaction: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Who Would Have Thought It? (1872)

8. Coup d’état: Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition (1901)

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