This semester we are going to be working together on constructing an elaborate timeline of American texts and historical events. This assignment has several purposes:
• It will help train us to think as literary historians: i.e., to think about a literary text in relation to history and in relation to the texts that preceded and followed its publication.
• We will hone some basic research skills by investigating our chosen time period.
• We will exercise our critical skills by carefully choosing a representative text and by choosing a representative excerpt.
• It will give us a chance to do a little close reading.
• Finally, we will create a really cool tool for the use of future students in similar introductory courses!
1. Go to the timeline signup sheet on google docs and choose a year-range in the left column. Insert your name and email address in one of the two columns to the right. Identify your partner for the project (if there is one – some of you may be working on your own) and get in touch with him/her to plan your joint work
(((((((((((((((((((( I chose the years 1853-1854 )))))))))))))))))))))))))
2. Begin your research by identifying the main historical events that occurred in your years. Some questions you may consider: What important political developments occurred in America or elsewhere in the world? Were there any wars or other conflicts? Major legislation or court cases? Significant scientific or technological discoveries/inventions? Important creations in music, art, or film? Were these years marked by economic crisis or prosperity? Who was born and who died? You can begin this stage by consulting our own timeline or the fuller timeline on which it is based, the Heath Anthology timeline. There are several other useful timelines, including this one created at Washington University. Find the best resources for your period.
3. Now that you know something about what happened during “your” years, proceed to locate a representative literary text published at that time (ideally, not one of the texts on the syllabus). “Literary” is used widely here: your chosen text can be a novel, a story, a poem, a play, a political, theological, or philosophical essay, a travel narrative, or an (auto) biographical narrative. Here are some suggestions of where you could find texts to choose from: the Heath Anthology timeline under the “Literary” column; tables of content of such anthologies as The Norton Anthology of American Literature and The Heath Anthology of American Literature; Literary histories such as A New Literary History of America (eds. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors); for the past few decades, you could consult information on literary prizes, such as the Nobel or Pulitzer prize. Be creative in finding sources!
What makes a text “representative” of a specific period is a difficult question. It’s a question faced by editors of anthologies, literary historians, professors who design syllabi, and others. Here are some criteria that you may consider: thematically, does the text deal with the burning issues of its time? Does it belong to a genre that was dominant in its period? Stylistically, does it “fit” its era? Was it widely read and discussed at the time? Do contemporary readers turn to it today to understand the period? Your chosen text doesn’t need to fit all these criteria, and you may decide that there are other criteria that are no less relevant in choosing your text. You are the authority – but you’ll need to explain your rationale.
4. Write your assignment, using these headings (see sample on the next page):
o Your name(s) and your year range.
o The title, author, and year of the text you chose.
o A relevant image – this can be a portrait of the author, the book’s cover, an illustration or a page from the book. Whatever you find most illuminating. Please include a link to the image so we could put it in the timeline!
o Author’s short biography (100-50 words).
o A short passage from the text (this can be a paragraph, a stanza, or short scene not exceeding 250 words). Choose a passage that will help you explain why this text is representative of its time period.
o A short explanation for why this text was chosen, using the research you’ve done in preparation as well as close reading of the passage you quoted (around 300 words).
o A link to an authoritative, specialized, academic website where we could find additional information about your text (resist the urge to link general sites such as Wikipedia).
o A list of sources you used in preparing the assignment.
A word of caution: paraphrase all material you draw from secondary sources. Do not copy-paste anything other than the quote from the text. Carefully acknowledge all the sources you used for your ideas and information. An assignment that includes plagiarism will fail and no second opportunity will be given.