The questions below will help guide your reading and serve as prompts for written response assignments. Before reading a new text, review the related questions so that you can mark your text and take notes efficiently. While attention to all or several of these questions will help you to prepare for class discussions and exams, please respond to only one question per author when composing your written responses.
Christopher Columbus, from the Journals
According to the journal, what are Columbus’s goals in coming to America and how can you tell?
Who is his audience, and how do you note its presence in his manner of writing?
As you note the behavior of the Spanish and Native Americans (as narrated by Columbus), what apparent discrepancies do you find in their value systems? Explain.
What aspects of this narrative conform to ideas about America (mythologies) that we might recognize even today?
John Smith, Description of New England
How does Smith’s vision of America compare with Columbus’s?
According to Smith, for what reasons should people come to America? To what extent do these reasons form a foundation for the "American dream" as we know it today?
How does Smith construct an image of Americans?
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: Discussion and Response Questions
(Reading question only): How did your reading of the text alter what you already knew about the "pilgrims"? For example, what surprises or new insights did you get from the text and how do you account for them?
(Response questions): What images of America and its inhabitants (both European and Native) does Bradford invoke or construct and why?
What does the text convey about Puritan daily life? What does Bradford want his audience to know/see and why?
How does the reality of the New World match Bradford’s vision? How does he account for any discrepancies, and what is at stake in his explanations?
John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity
What components make up Winthrop’s vision the New World, which he articulates in the passage about the "city on a hill"? Why is this vision important to him? to the Puritans? And how do you know?
In what ways does Winthrop’s vision extend beyond the religious to the social and political? How might this vision be translated into to everyday life? What connections do you see between this vision and the ways that Puritan culture will be organized in the New World?
Columbus, Smith, Bradford, Winthrop: Synthesis Question
How do these visions of America and its inhabitants, resources, and possibilities compare?
Anne Bradstreet, selected poems
(When composing a written response, use one or two poems for your answer)
(Reading question only): Given what you know about Puritan life from reading Bradford and Winthrop, what new perspective do you find in Bradstreet, and how do you account for it?
Using "The Prologue" and "The Author to Her Book," what is Bradstreet’s apparent attitude toward her own writing? Can we take her at her word?
What does the "New World" seem to mean for Bradstreet? What evidence do you see of the nature of daily life for a wife/mother/woman in early New England?
What is Bradstreet’s perspective on religion as compared to Bradford or Winthrop?
Compare the poems about Bradstreet’s mother and father? What does her language suggest about the different roles and expectations for men and women in Puritan culture? (Notice her use of metaphors.)
For reading reference only: a "Blueprint" for Reading Women’s Autobiographies and Diaries:
How does the preface, perhaps written by Increase Mather, frame the narrative and/or Rowlandson’s character? What does it establish about her and her text and why?
Notice the treatment of the following in the preface and the narrative proper: Does each offer the same reading of Rowlandson’s experience? Specifically, compare their depictions of Indians, the captivity experience, and Rowlandson herself.
Based on her narrative, who do you think Rowlandson’s audience was and how do you think they viewed her? What evidence leads you to this conclusion?
When and at what points do you feel as if you have access to Rowlandson’s feelings or inner self? What enables and prevents this access?
Keep track of when Rowlandson uses scripture? What patterns can you generate from this use? What do these patterns suggest about how the narrator wants us to view Rowlandson and her captors?
In what ways does her narrative play out what it means to be a Puritan? a woman in Puritan culture?
What, if anything, do you make of her insomnia once rescued?
Sarah Kemble Knight, The Journal of Madame Knight
1. Remembering that Knight is, like Mary Rowlandson and Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan, discuss her journal in the context of what you have learned about Puritan women's roles. In what ways does the text conform to/challenge your expectations?
2. Make of list of the "stories" Knight tells (the little anecdotes she retells). What point does each make? What do they show us about New English life? Knight?
3. What kind of values does Knight evince in her journal? What things does she find important and why? What does this tell us about her?
4. Try placing the people in Knight's journal into different categories. What characteristics distinguish one group from another? What similarities and differences exist? What does such categorization tell us about her?
5. What is particularly American about this journal? What assumptions about America(ns) does your answer reveal?
6. Imagine that Knight is someone you know. How would you describe her to a friend? Give evidence for your observations.
# In what sense
is Knight a businesswoman? How do you know? In what sense is
she a heroine? According to what standards?
Elizabeth Ashbridge, Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of . . .
(Context for reading):According to Carol Edkins, the following are characteristics of Quaker autobiography:
1. early intimations of religious questioning
2. attempt to find religious life in prevailing doctrines
3. a record of first knowledge of Quakers
4. struggle against surrender to God and the Quaker community
(Reading and Response Questions):
1. What role do men play in Ashbridge's autobiography? women?
2. Characterize Ashbridge's spiritual struggles and marital dilemmas. Does she resolve the former at the expense of the latter?
3. What implicit moral and spiritual advice does the text contain?
4. How does Ashbridge structure the narrative and construct herself as a character in her story to win sympathy and intellectual support from readers? Is she successful?
4. We've read two texts so far that might be classified as spiritual autobiographies (Rowlandson and Ashbridge). What relationship does Franklin's text bear to that genre and why? How does it modify that genre (according to your experience of reading)?
1. According to Crevecoeur, what does America look like? What language is used to describe the landscape?
2. What do its inhabitants look like? What are their ideals and values?
3. What purpose does the story of Andrew serve?
4. In what ways does the "Description of Charles Town" (Letter IX) answer, extend, or undermine Letter III?
Response and Discussion Questions: Olaudah Equiano
1. Compare Equiano's narrative to Franklin's Autobiography.
What qualities do both possess? What roles do both play? In what sense
does Equiano not have access to Franklin's paradigm/ideal?
2. Consider Equiano's narrative in the context of spiritual autobiography, especially that genre's movement from captivity or enslavement to conversion to escape/freedom. How does Equiano conform to/modify that style?
3. As an early slave narrative, Equiano's text may have been somewhat responsible for the format these texts took throughout the nineteenth century. What characteristics can you identify? What stages does the narrative go through? What are the significant traits of this young, enslaved man?
4. How does Equiano describe Africa and how does this compare to his entry into the Western world (and his knowledge of the slave trade)? Is Africa all noble ideals?
5. How does he portray Western culture? Of what things is he most afraid? In what sense do his preconceptions/assumptions about Western culture compare with that culture's assumptions about Africans?
6. What does Equiano have to do to fit in with Western culture? How does he have to refashion his self/values?
7. What makes this an American book? What makes Equiano an American author? Should his text be included in American literature classes? Why or why not?
Judith Sargent Murray, On the Equality of the Sexes
What are Murray’s arguments for the education of women, and exactly how do they conserve and/or challenge the status quo? Why would her strategies be effective?
Consider the relationship between Murray’s argument and The Coquette. How does Murray’s text offer a gloss on or a solution to the problems the novel exposes?
Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette
1. What is the novel about? What issues does it foreground?
2. What kind of person is Eliza? What does she want out of life, and what are her views of marriage? In what ways are her desires/views safe and/or dangerous for an eighteenth-century woman?
3. Characterize Boyer. What does he want from a woman and why is he attracted to Eliza? Do you like him? What are his views on marriage?
4. Novels like The Coquette or Charlotte Temple are often called "seduction novels." What is seduction exactly and how does it work? (Look it up in a good college dictionary.) How do issues of power play into seduction? Given this, discuss the way seduction works in The Coquette.
5. This is an "epistolary" novel, one that is presented in letters.
Why do you think Foster chose this technique? What does it allow her to
put in? What must she leave out? How is this important to our reading?
Other items for discussion:
18th century law
18th century definitions of "virtue"
James Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison
1. How do Seaver's preface and introduction set up/frame the narrative for white readers? What value system does he set up and expect readers to read from? What views of Native Americans does Seaver evince? How does he want us to view Jemison?
2. Consider the cultural meaning(s) of captivity for Rowlandson's and Jemison's texts (not necessarily their viewpoints, remember) from one of the following perspectives:
-views of Native Americans
-representation of gender
-attitude toward freedom
-sense-making of captivity experience
3. Consider the narrative from the perspective of one of its (stated or implicit) purposes:
-propaganda for American policy on Native Americans
(Indian Removal/Manifest Destiny)
4. Consider the text in the context of 19th-century views of women. Consider one of the following:
-evidence of traditional gender roles
-evidence of deviation
-events selected for retelling
-dilemmas women faced
-19th-c. views of Native American women (Namias, p. 17-22)
5. Jemison's Seneca name means "two voices falling." Consider her narrative in terms of this idea (either Seaver's and hers or her own double positioning as a white woman who chooses Native American modes of living).
Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
1. What are the major motifs/themes presented in the title page and preface? And how do these motifs/themes recur in the narrative itself? In narrative style? issues?
2. The first chapter presents an adolescent adventure that seems to have little bearing on the larger plot/issues of the book. What does the text gain by presenting this chapter first?
3. In chapters 2 and 3, Pym is, in a sense, "held captive" in the ship’s hold. Why do you think chapter 4 retells the events of these chapters? What are the differences between this and, for example, Equiano’s captivity? (Moreover, why bring it up at all?)
4. In chapter 6, the narrative shifts to journal form. What is gained by this? What does this form enable? Prevent? (Think about what we’ve learned about personal narratives so far this semester.)
5. Think about the significance of:
-the ship of corpses (chapter 10)
-how the scene of cannibalism is narrated (chapter 11/12 and
-how the travellers are presented in chapter 15? What is their
project’s goal? What is the text getting at?
-what about the way the "natives" are presented in chapter 18? (go back to
Columbus’s Journal and compare)
7. Chapters 1-13 occur on board the Grampus; chapters 14-25 occur on the Jane Guy. What is the subject matter of each section? Besides the parallel of meeting "natives," what are some similarities in the latter half of this book and Columbus’s Journal?
8. Some critics have argued that these two sections are really two different books. What, if anything, do these two parts of the book have to do with each other? What are the parallels? Themes?
9. How do metaphors of blackness and whiteness operate in the latter half of the book?
10. How are we supposed to interpret the ending?
Emerson, "The American Scholar"
(***Note: For more information about Emerson, see definitions of "Transcendentalism" attached at back of packet.)
1. What is the nature of the American scholar? What authorizes him as "learned"?
2. What is the relationship of the scholar to society? Emerson to his own audience?
3. To what degree does Emerson seem aware of himself as constructing a new national literature or identity? How do you see this in his text?
4. What is self-reliance and what is entailed in being self-reliant?
5. What is the relationship between society and the individual?
6. If one is self-reliant, according to Emerson, what happens to one's responsibilities to others?
General questions about Emerson:
7. Who has access to Emerson's ideals? Why?
8. Given Emerson's idealism, it seems curious that his work is littered with metaphors of the body. Locate some of these and think about how they work.
9. Emerson was writing in the context of the Panic of 1837 (comparable in many ways to the Great Depression) and the rise of industrial capitalism. In what sense can one view his work as a response to these events?
10. How does Emerson characterize his age? How does he characterize its relationship to the past?
11. According to Emerson, what is the purpose/realm of art? the artist? What notions of art does he critique?
12. What kind of reader is Emerson? How does he characterize the values and risks of reading? How can one read most usefully?
13. Select some of Emerson's self-confident epigrams: Test, challenge, and examine its seeming simplicity for complexity.
14. How does Emerson provoke his audience? What sense do you have of his readers' resistance?
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
1. What is the function of the prefatory material? Why does Douglass include an appendix?
2. What is the relationship of literacy to Douglass's quest for freedom?
3. What is the relationship of violence to Douglass's quest for freedom?
4. What ideas about God and Christianity does Douglass convey?
5. How does Douglass attempt to engage the sympathies of his audience? What kind of rhetoric does he use to do this and why?
6. How does Douglass define freedom? How is it tied into ideas about manhood?
7. In what sense does Douglass's narrative connect use Emersonian ideas about "self-reliance"?
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
1. What is the function of the prefatory material? How do Jacobs' and Lydia Maria Child's prefaces compare/differ?
2. Jacobs' intended audience seems to be "women of the North." Discuss Jacobs' strategies for appealing to her audience. What does she leave in/out, and how does she treat different "incidents" with this audience in mind?
3. How does Jacobs seem to define slavery and freedom? What problems/conflicts seem to characterize each? How do her definitions compare with those of Douglass?
4. What are slavery's particular dangers to women? to the family? to the home?
5. Examine Chapter 10 as a variation on the seduction tale (The Coquette). How does Jacobs use and/or challenge this popular narrative form?
6. Using Chapter 16 as your base, what expectations
exist for nineteenth-century women and how does slavery come into conflict
with those expectations?
Herman Melville, Benito Cereno
1. This story is rather like a riddle. As you read and at various points in the story, stop reading and jot down your reactions and expectations about the following:
What is wrong with Benito Cereno?
How do you explain his strange behavior?
What do your expect will happen?
At what point do you figure out what is going on on the
2. In confining us to the perspective of Captain Delano, what might be Melville's purpose? What limitations/world views are imposed on us through this technique? How reliable a reader is Delano? What are his values?
3. What is Captain Delano's attitude toward slavery? How is this tied into his American-ness?
4. In Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, she argues that American literature consistently reveals the presence of "American Africanism," or the "denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify" (6). Close study of this literary "blackness," she continues, reveals the nature of literary "whiteness" (9). Further, she maintains that the construction of an American self is intrinsically linked to the "fabrication of the Africanist persona," which is an "extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious" (17).
Morrison maintains that American Romanticism (which includes Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman) is an exploration of Americans’ "fears of being outcast, of failing, of powerlessness; their fear of boundarylessness, of Nature unbridled and crouched for attack; their fear of the absence of so-called civilization; their fear of loneliness, of aggression both external and internal. In short, the terror of human freedom--the thing they coveted most of all. . . "(37). This abiding fear in the American imagination is, of course, best expressed through the metaphor of terrifying "darkness."
Question: Given Morrison's analysis, how does Melville's book construct a racialized Other and what does this construction suggest about Delano himself?
5. Why is the story told twice? What do these competing narratives (one a "factual" account, another a legal deposition) suggest to us about the nature of narrative and reading?
6. What do you make of the final dialogue (after the Deposition)? Has either changed his opinion of slavery? Why or why not?
7. What is your view of the ending? Why doesn't Babo speak?
8. What is this story about? slavery? democracy? reading? law?