Jill E. Gatlin
American literature in its political and cultural context from the Civil War to the present. Emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to American literature, including history, politics, anthropology, and mass media.
For AUTUMN 2007: American Literary Environmental Justice. Outlining an alternative political movement to mainstream “environmentalism,” the 1991 charter “Principles of Environmental Justice” calls attention to the interrelationships between the environment and race, class, gender, and sexuality, and it insists on the importance of addressing not simply the preservation of wilderness and conservation of natural resources but also the distribution of environmental hazards in work spaces and home environments. Although this political movement “officially” emerged in the 1990s, American literary texts have long addressed such problems; in this course, we will consider how American literature from industrialism to the present influences and is influenced by popular, political, scientific, medical, and legal discourses on pollution, nature, nation, and the body. Hence, we’ll read not only novels, poems, and plays but also primary documents from the aforementioned disciplines, historical studies, and theoretical accounts of these cultural and political problems. If you’ve read any traditional American “nature writing”—Thoreau is often considered the quintessential example—expect to encounter a strikingly different set of “literary landscapes” in this course! Our literary texts will likely include Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills (1861), Hamlin Garland’s Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly (1895), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead (1938), Hubert Skidmore’s The Hawk’s Nest (1941), El Teatro Campesino’s “Vietnam Campesino” (1970), Cherríe Moraga’s Heroes and Saints (1989), and Helena María Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus (1995). We’ll also read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, and a variety of shorter works or excerpts that will be available in a photocopied coursepack. Some of the questions we’ll ask about these texts—in addition to the questions you bring to class, of course—include: *How is literature relevant to conversations about politics and ethics? What can literature add to these conversations? What do these texts say about cultural and political change? How do elements of literary style contribute to the cultural or political “messages” we take away from novels, poems, or plays? *What cultural and political contexts shape the ways literary artists respond to environmental problems such as industrial pollution, occupational disease, or pesticide poisoning? *How does literature popularize, modify, or challenge cultural and political discourses of environmental justice or injustice? *How do nationalism, racism, classism, and sexism relate to the environment? How are the concepts of “pollution” and “waste” deployed to define not only environmental hazards but also certain groups of people who are not seen as “true Americans”? *How does nonhuman nature fit (or not fit) into literary renditions of polluted environments? What sorts of traditional cultural understandings of the “American landscape” inform depictions of wastelands?
Course requirements include attentive reading, active participation in all discussions and in-class activities, presentations/leading discussion, formal response papers, informal writing, and a final paper.
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