Mark Kamrath
University of Central Florida

American Novel

In arguing for the positive value of stereotyped characters and sensational, formulaic plots, I have self-consciously reversed the negative judgments that critics have passed on these features of popular fiction be re-describing them from the perspective of an altered conception of what literature is.  When literary texts are conceived as agents of cultural formation rather than as objects of interpretation and appraisal, what counts as “good” character or logical sequence of events changes accordingly.  When one sets aside modernist demands—for psychological complexity, moral ambiguity, epistemological sophistication, stylistic density, formal economy—and attends to the way a text offers a blueprint for survival under a specific set of political, economic, social, or religious conditions, an entirely new story begins to unfold, and one’s sense of the formal exigencies of narrative alters accordingly, producing a different conception of what constitutes successful characters and plots.
     Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The
     Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860  (1985)
Course goals:
The purpose of this course is to examine the American novel from its beginnings to shortly after the Civil War and to understand its various historical, cultural and discursive contexts.  In addition to studying how the emergence of economic liberalism in the early republic is tied to developments in print culture and authorship, we will also focus on the ways the American novel responded to political, social, and philosophical issues and problems.  In particular, we will examine the manner in which writers with diverse backgrounds responded to or appropriated different types of language as part of their efforts to break away from European models and conventions or to offer alternative expressions of American experience.  As such, we will examine how various writers represent the past and negotiate questions about American identity, race and gender, religious belief, and economic difference.  At the same time, we will also become familiar with the ways sentimental, gothic, romantic, autobiographical, realistic, evangelical, and other discourses contributed to the history and innovative developments of the early American novel.


William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy (Penguin)
Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette (Penguin)
Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-walker (Penguin)
James F. Cooper, The Pioneers (Penguin)
Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie, or Early Times in the Massachusetts (Penguin)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (Penguin)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or the Whale (Penguin)
Harriot Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (Penguin)
Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall (Penguin)
Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life a Free Black (Vintage)


1.) Participation:  10% of grade.

Simply being in class and listening will earn you a "C" for this part of the course. Active participation or improvement in this area will earn you a higher grade as will the thoughtful questions and answers. Participation in small group exercises and other such activities are opportunities for you demonstrate your interest in, and knowledge of, the material.  Also part of this grade is participation in a panel discussion.

2.) Two Papers:  40% of grade (see below).

*Critical paper --20%, usually about 6-7 typed pages exploring some aspect or facet of our reading. An electronic paper proposal required.  Due any time but no later  than  Monday, November 14

*Reflection paper—20%, also about 6-7 typed pages; here I ask you to reflect on your sense of the American novel and it development relative to class discussions, issues, etc.

3.) Mid-term Examination :  25% of the grade

4.) Final Examination:  25% of the grade

Lastly, in terms of assigning grades I typically use the following scale:

F--.5 and below

Since the rest of us will depend on your work and it is not possible to make up classes that you miss, THREE or more absences are grounds for lowering your grade. For example, if you have five absences (regardless of the reasons), your final grade will be lowered one full grade, e.g., from a "B" to a "C," seven absences two grades, and so on.  If you have eleven absences, you will fail the course, regardless of what grade you have. If absolutely necessary, the TWO allowed absences should be used for days when you are sick, or have some emergency or special obligation; the decision is up to you, and you don't have to explain your reasons for absence. In fact, it is best if you don't.  The absence policy takes into account car problems, traffic accidents, computer (and printer) problems, death and funerals, mono and other hard to diagnose illnesses, etc. In short, if circumstances beyond your control are causing you to have excessive absences, you are advised to withdraw because you will not pass the course.

If you think you'll have a problem getting to class on time, consider taking another course. Your classmates and I would like to start--and end--class on time. Being habitually late for class will count as an absence. Also getting your name on the sign-up sheet which goes around each meeting is your responsibility. I will not accept "but it didn't get to me" or "I forgot . . . "  Besides verifying absences upon request, the only time I will look at attendance records is after each examination and at the end of the course when I am calculating final grades.

Students who have perfect attendance will, of course, favorably impress the instructor and get the "benefit of the doubt" when it comes to a "close grade."

Academic Integrity:

Often students plagiarize because they fear trying out their own ideas, they have not left themselves adequate time for an assignment, or they simply don't know how to credit a source.  However, plagiarism--the submission of someone else's words or ideas as your own--is a serious offense.  You can fail the course or be disciplined by the university for such action (please refer the appropriate section in your Undergraduate Catalogue)  The consequences of plagiarizing are not worth the risk.  If you have questions about how to document sources, please see me or the Writing Center.

University Writing Center:

The Writing Assistance Center, staffed by the Department of English, exists to help those with concerns or questions they may have about all kinds of writing.  Regardless of the course your writing is for, they can assist you with the beginning stages of writing, with effectively developing your thesis or ideas, and with mechanics and matters of revision and proofreading. I encourage all of you to make the Writing Center a key part of your university education. It offers individual help, free of charge, and is located in MOD 608 (behind the COMM building and CAS).  You can set up an appointment by dropping in, or by calling 823-2197.


The first week of the course and the last will be used for winding things up and then winding them down.  The following schedule is subject to revision, and aims to give you a general idea of how the course is intended to shape up. (Note: journal or other assignments related to readings will usually be assigned the class period before such reading is to be completed.)

Week 1 (August 24):                       *Introduction

Week 2 (August 29 and 31):           *William H. Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789)

Week 3 (September 5 and 7):         *Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797)

Week 4 (September 12 and 14):      *Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799)

Week 5 (September 19 and 21):       continue Brown
                                                        *James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823)

Week 6 (September 26 and 28):       continue Cooper

Week 7 (October 3 and 5):               Midterm Examination
                                                        Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, or Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827)

Week 8 (October 10 and 12):           continue Sedgwick
                                                        *Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

Week 9 (October 17 and 19:            continue Hawthorne
                                                        Withdrawal deadline—Oct. 20

Week 10 (October 24 and 26:          *Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick or the Whale (1851)
                                                         No class on Thursday, Reading Day

Week 11 (Oct 31 and Nov 2):           continue Melville

Week 12 (November 7 and 9):         *Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852)

Week 13 (November 14 and 16):      Symposium Panels
                                                         Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall (1855)
                                                         Last Day to turn in critical paper—Nov. 14

Week 14 (November 21 and 23):      Symposium Panels
                                                         continue Hall
                                                         *No class on Thursday, Thanksgiving

Week 15 (November 28 and 30):      Symposium Panels
                                                         Wilson’s Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859)
                                                          Reflection Paper Due

Week 16 (December 5 and 7):           *Final Exam  (to be announced)

“Survivor II”; or Early American Novel Quiz

After introducing yourself to a couple of tribal partners, determine which novel the passage belongs to and note your reasons why.  Does the text offer clues? Of what sort?
William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy
Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette
Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly;or Memoirs of a Sleep-walker
James F. Cooper, The Pioneers
Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie, or Early Times in the Massachusetts
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or the Whale
Harriot Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly
Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall
Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life a Free Black
(1)    The House of the Seven Gables, antique as it now looks, was not the first habitation erected by civilized man, on precisely the same spot of ground.  Pyncheon-street formerly bore the humbler appellation of Maule’s Lane, from the name of the original occupant of the soil, before whose cottage-door it was a cow-path.  A natural spring of soft and pleasant water—a rare treasure on the sea-girt peninsula, where the Puritan settlement was made—had early induced Matthew Maule to build a hut, shaggy with thatch, at this point, although somewhat too remote from what was the center of the village.

(2)    Upon your reflecting and steady mind, my dear Julia, I need not inculcate the lessons which may be drawn from this woe-fraught tale; but for the sake of my sex in general, I wish it engraved upon every heart, that virtue alone, independent of the trappings of wealth, the parade of equipage, and the adulation of gallantry, can secure lasting felicity.  From the melancholy story of Eliza Wharton, let the American fair learn to reject with disdain every insinuation derogatory  to their true dignity and honor.  Let them despise, and forever banish the man, who can glory in the seduction of innocence and the ruin of reputation.  To associate, is to approve; to approve, is to be betrayed!
 I am, & c.
        Lucy Sumner

(3)      There was but one way to end them [the wounded Indian’s shrieks].  To kill him outright, was the dictate of compassion and of duty.  I hastily returned, and once more leveled my piece at his head.  It was a loathsome obligation, and was performed with unconquerable reluctance.  Thus to assault and to mangle the body of an enemy, already prostrate and powerless, was an act worthy of abhorrence; yet  it was, in this case, prescribed by pity.
 . . .  . This task of cruel lenity was at length finished.  I dropped the weapon and threw myself on the ground, overpowered by the horrors of this scene.  Such are the deeds which perverse nature compels thousands of rationale beings to perform and to witness! Such is the spectacle, endlessly prolonged and diversified, which is exhibited in every field of battle; of which, habit and example, the temptations of gain, and the illusions of honour, will make us, not reluctant or indifferent, but zealous and delighted actors and beholders!

Brief notes on approaches to books for Fall 2000:

--William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789) and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797).
Brown’s “first American” novel reflects preoccupation with role of women as safekeepers of the country’s morality—dangers of succumbing to sexual temptation. Epistolary like Rowson’s novel..  Women’s bodies and morality the focus as well as “virtue” in the early republic.  Both used “histories” or real life circumstances adapted to fictional medium. Less serial (see APS) and relates to republicanism.  Seduction novel plot.  Use with clip from TV soaps and then discuss earlier period. Didactic ending.  Carla Mulford’s introduction is excellent (use for lecture but have sets of questions for each novel).  American novel had its origin in the seduction novel appropriated from the British sentimental tradition of Samuel Richardson.

--C.B. Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799) and America’s first Gothic novel. Set in 1787 and problems confronted by framers of the Constitution:  how to harness the irrational, passionate aspects of man’s nature without sacrificing individual liberty.  Moral, psychological, political allegory in one sense but also deals with Indian question, immigration (Clithero), prison and hospital reform, etc as well as postcolonial and history of sexuality issues.  Brown’s self-reflexivity in narrative and adaptations with epistolary style make it unique. Relates well to captivity narratives. Use relative to movie The Blair Witch Project (show self-reflexive scene and woods).  Open ending? Use Mary Chapman’s introduction to discuss “gothic novel” and form. Also use her novel?

--James F. Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823) the first of Coopers’ Leatherstocking Tales (use with Daniel Day Lewis movie The Last of the Mohicans and slides from North Carolina where film was made and art of the day such Albert Bierstadt’s). Life on new settlement in New York’s Lake Otsego at the end of the eighteenth-century—all in a year’s cycle (winter, spring, summer, fall). Focuses on questions of empire, east/ west problems, nature versus civilization, power and property, law and natural rights, class, American manners, family, race, and progress (see his use of satire).  Romantic hero and detail and relation between historical myth and ideology.  Yet didactic, romantic (Scott tradition), epic, use of description and detail.  See Mark Twain’s list of Cooper’s “literary offences.”

--Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, or Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827).  Frontier romance that celebrates female strengths and values.  Set in 17th c New England, shows role of women in building early republic. Counterpoint to Cooper (Last of the Mohicans), it challenges conventional view of Indians, tackles interracial marriage, places women in history. Hope is a spirited thinker in repressive Puritan society.  Contains realistic portrayal of regional manners (see Twain).  Ties into era of Cooper which  consciously sought to distinguish itself from Europe.  Focuses on common humanity of natives (compare with Brown’s Edgar Huntly).  Issues of Native Americans, religious dissenters, sexual transgressors and women dealt with in utopian society. Avoids “seduced and abandoned plot” of earlier novels as well as excessive sentiment. But uses public oratory well.

--Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables  (1851) reflects “romance” versus “novel” and social and moral values of New England in the 1840s. Hawthorne’s own family history with Puritanism enabled him to see darker side of national past and humanity.  Deals with Protestant fundamentalist values and H’s concern about “progress,” materialism, excess, thoughtlessness, etc, that turned him toward inward self and the historical imagination, e.g.. Salem witchtrials.

--Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick or the Whale (1851) and “compressed intensity” and “taunting contradictions” as well as various genres and interplay give it a highly anti-conventional  thrust in theme and style. “Who ain’t a slave?  Tell me that.” Irony and narrative self-consciousness is highly spiritual and metaphysical..  Melville told Hawthorne he had “written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.”

--Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852) indicts slavery and is unique in its narrative structure and use of dialogue and sentimental, evangelical, and realistic discourses.  Appropriates literary techniques of structure and style reserved for men as well as from (possibly) slave narratives and other genres. Stowe claims she’s a realist and romancer.  Ties into main tents of evangelical Protestantism and the cult of domesticity as well as furor over passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. (Note:  Hawthorne condoned slavery.) Relate to roles of women and femininity—and feminism.

--Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall. (1855)  Best selling novel from the 1850s which highly autobiographical:  the death of her husband, bitter estrangement from her family, struggle to make a living as an author. Strong female protagonist who defies traditional assumptions about women’s independence and her place in society.  Story eschews usual “happy ending” wedding expected by readers of her time. Uses vignettes and snatches of overheard conversation. Modern in impact and has urban dimension.  See Hawthorne comment about “devil in her.”

--Harriet E. Wilson’s (first African-American to publish novel) Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) fuses slave narrative and sentimental fiction and exposes Northern racism.  Focus on family as connected with cash and marketplace key.