Gen Ed 1172. Poetry in America: Writing America 1620-1850

Instructor: Elisa New
Day & Time: TBD 

This General Education course will contemplate art's formative role in the development of civilizations by allowing students to trace the gradual development of America's self-conception through the lens of its poetry.

“[P]oetry was all written before time was,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay "The Poet." When Emerson wrote these words in 1844, nearly 75 years after the Revolution, he feared America had not yet found its "seers," “sayers,” and "namers"--its poets. But Emerson's quest for "the poet" in fact applied to all those makers--essayists, orators, painters, architects, composers--whose creativity gives a culture its characteristic look and sound, its special vernacular and values. It was, in Emerson’s conception, the poet's--the artist's--integrity on which civilizations depend: a culture's attitude to its citizens and its non-citizens; the use or misuse of its natural resources; the treatment of its laborers; the standards of its schools; the meanings it assigned marriage, death, masculinity, femininity; its ideas of the spiritual, the beautiful, the entertaining--all these would be, Emerson believed, encoded in its art. What a nation's poets wrote was, finally, what that nation would become.

Students in Writing America will read, discuss, and debate poems written for these high civilizational stakes, and they’ll explore the diverse functions poetry played in a wide variety of print venues (from newspapers and women’s magazines, to funeral programs, to farmers’ almanacs). The syllabus covers major poets from the colonial period through 1850 (including Bradstreet, Taylor, Wigglesworth, Wheatley, Freneau, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow); through these poets, students will be able to follow the emerging role of the “author” and “the arts” within American culture. But much of their study will be focused on poetry whose aims were not purely, or even primarily, literary. Beginning with the first book published in North America (The Bay Psalm Book, printed in our very own Harvard Square), they’ll read jeremiads and funeral elegies sanctioning transfers of political power, as well as political ditties of the 1770's urging patriots to give up imported luxuries like tea and silk. They’ll read selections from partisan satires and epics of the Revolution, mock-epics celebrating indigenous foods like cornmeal mush, and poetry celebrating the beauties--and exploitable resources--of the American landscape. They’ll pay close attention to how the demonization--and romanticization--of indigenous peoples in popular verse rendered native Americans figuratively extinct, even while poetry enabled some African Americans and women to achieve not only visibility, but celebrity. Writing in America students will come to understand how poetry helped Americans embrace the virtues of labor and middle class life, and how it supported emerging ideals of literacy and cultivated, and fed, robust mass cultural appetites. Throughout the semester, students will connect poetry's relationship to music, oratory, painting, statecraft, homiletics, and other expressive genres, considering throughout the role art plays not only in reflecting but in shaping distinctive cultures.