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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Robert Abrams
ENGL 440
Seattle Campus

Special Studies in Literature

Themes and topics offering special approaches to literature.

Class description

American Landscapes, Seascapes, and Cityscapes (Exploring Nineteenth-Century Literary Space):

The “setting” of a literary text is sometimes envisaged as if it were an inert physical surround, already existing ahead of time, into which characters were being inserted, and whose surrounding reality authors were somehow describing as if representing something independent of the formative powers of consciousness and imagination. But if the “focal center,” as Thoreau writes specifically the spectacular impact of autumn foliage, is “between” the observer and the observed, this is more generally true of all that seems to take place “out there” as the setting of literary texts. It’s true that in an era of US national expansion across a landscape wherein the “destiny” of the nation is already assumed to be “manifest,” much that is projected outward into space by maps, paintings and other mechanisms hides its projective power. But in reaction, American writers develop a counter-sensitivity to the way sense of landscape and space—and in Melville’s case, the visualization of the city and the sea--actually remains unsettled: in the play of maps, paintings, images, and deeply rooted assumptions that can contradict one another, somewhat the way shifting images, based on alternative perspectives, reorganize what one seems to see in an Escher etching or Rorschach ink blot. Thoreau, for example, discovers that as he learns native tribal languages, he actually learns to see the same forest in an entirely different manner from the way it is perceived through a gaze rooted in Western European culture and science. Moreover, numerous writers during this period exploit such an insight into the perceptual fluidity of space to evolve fresh possibilities of visibility in the here and now. We’ll be reading a series of nineteenth-century American texts that enact such metamorphic visualization and that highlight the creative powers of the gaze, from Poe’s strange journeys into the Antarctic to Thoreau’s artful descriptions of nature to the way gazing is both enacted and meditated upon in Moby-Dick.

Readings: 1) selections from literary scholarship and visual theory—available on e-reserve—which will supplement our primary readings of literary materials; 2) readings available either at the Bookstore or on e-reserve in Hawthorne, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller, Melville, Whitman, and Gilman.

Student learning goals

Read literary texts in depth

Explore the relationship between literature and the broader American culture

Write analytic, well-organized essays

General method of instruction

Lecture plus class discussion

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading

Likely: several 5-page essays plus journal entries on each assigned reading.

Papers, plus quality of journal entries


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Robert Abrams
Date: 10/25/2012