American Literature

Essay Two:  The Past, Nonconformity, and the Individual

In his call for a truly “American” effort in literature in “The American Scholar,”  Emerson starts with indicating that our reliance on the past is part of what is crippling our progression forward:  “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.  The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests” (2008, p. 520).  The period in American Literature that we cover in Seminars Three and Four was a time when Emerson and others continued to question the idea of the “American.”  Emerson’s essay largely focuses on the influence of the past upon the writer/scholar, and in the conclusion he notes that, “The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. . . . We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds” (Emerson, 2008, p. 520).  That theme is picked up again in his “Self-Reliance” in which he declares, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (Emerson, 2008, p. 535).

In your second essay for this course, consider the influence of the past in the works we read from Norton’s Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Seventh Edition in Seminars Three and Four.  In what ways do the authors and works we’ve read in those seminars challenge the codes and mores of the past?  What “new territory” are these writers seeking to carve out?  In many ways, this paper is a continuation of the issues regarding identity and what “American” means that you addressed in Essay 1.

You are encouraged to develop a focused thesis that grapples with this question of American identity and the concern with self-reliance in terms of literature/literary creation by choosing one of the following as the basis of your essay.  Regardless of your choice, keep Emerson’s declaration about nonconformity in mind as you write:

  1. Rubens’ PAL indicates that “Rip Van Winkle” plays on the idea of the American Dream and offers various versions of it.  Write an essay in which you explore what Irving’s story says about that dream, and specifically what it says about American identity.  What “overturning” of tradition and old ways do we see in this story?  Who is the new American that is Rip at the end of the story? How is he changed?  What do those changes correlate to in terms of changes in American identity after the Revolution?
  2. In what ways might Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” be seen as a message regarding family traditions and conformity to tradition?  
  3. Write an essay about Melville’s story “Bartlett the Scrivener” that examines Bartlett  as a product of urban development. How does Bartlett refuse to conform?  What message about individuality is Melville trying to convey?
  4. Analyze what Davis seems to be saying about the American Dream and how we can reach our full potential.  Is her story challenging the idea of the dream as the successful expression of ourselves that can overcome all other influences?  Does Davis’ story show that Emerson’s ideal of the artist as a non-conformist is not really attainable or practical?   Does the story demonstrate that it takes more than just self-reliance to be successful?   Consider Dr. May’s ideas about self-reliance as you develop your essay.
  5. Wild card option:  With your instructor’s approval, you may develop an essay for this assignment that analyzes a work from seminar 3 or 4.  You must consult with your instructor first, indicating which text you wish to use and how that analysis will demonstrate the concept of conformity and identity.  Requirements: Textual Support:  Consider grounding your discussion in the ideas discussed by Emerson in “The American Scholar” or “Self-Reliance” to set up the concerns regarding American identity and how that is portrayed through literature.  You’ll also, of course, use quotations from the texts that you are analyzing. Do not use The Scarlet Letter for this assignment. Length:  Your essay should have no fewer than five paragraphs (you’ll actually need more) and should be no fewer than 1250-1500 words (approximately five double-spaced pages in Times New Roman 12 point), not counting the title page and references page.  Note that this is a minimum length. Thesis Statement:  Please formulate a clear thesis statement that directly presents your argument point.  Do not use a purpose statement, a quotation,  or question as your thesis.  Please see page 11 of The Writer’s Brief Handbook for a discussion of how the thesis should function.  Consider previewing the main literary texts you are analyzing in that thesis and/or the introduction paragraph. Organization:  This will likely vary, but since we’re using that issue of the “past” and concern over being restricted to old forms and imitation to  “frame” our discussion, you might choose to organize your essay in such a way that shows that concern and the lingering references to the past in the literary works you are analyzing and then that shows the author’s balancing of the past and those ideas of progression and/or nonconformity. Note that this type of paper does not rely on plot summaries.  While you do want to provide a bit of context for the literary texts you are analyzing, this should be done fairly quickly and concisely so you can move on to using those texts to support your larger analysis/argument thesis. Additional Requirements:
  • Do not use first person (“I” or “we”) or second person (“you”) in this essay.  The focus is on textual analysis and making a larger interpretive argument, so personal experience and narrative tone are not appropriate.
  • Do not rely on large, block quotations for support.  Ideally, your paper will not contain block quotations, as you’ll be using paraphrase and concise quotations.
  • Your paper should be edited.  Make sure you’ve spelled authors’ names correctly and employ spell checker.
  • Your assignment should be in APA format with a title page and references page.  Note that the entire paper should be double-spaced and should use APA style citations.
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