English 344: American Literature to 1890
The True, the Beautiful, and the Good
Mondays and Wednesdays 12:30 – 1:45
Dr. Joshua Mabie
To the memory of Sarah Orne Jewett in whose beautiful and delicate work there is the perfection that endures.
Willa Cather, dedication to O Pioneers!
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downwards through the mud and slush of opinion and tradition, and pride and prejudice, appearance and delusion, through the alluvium which covers the globe, through poetry and philosophy and religion, through church and state, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, till we come to a hard bottom that rocks in place which we can call reality and say, “This is and no mistake.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, – the two are one;
“We brethren are,” he said.
– Emily Dickinson
Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem.
-Edgar Allen Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”
Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.
– W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of the Black Folk
We are consumed by politics. Unfortunately, the minute-by-minute politics of breaking-news rage and outrage can also consume English professors’ and English majors’ approaches to literary art. Literature, by one definition, is collection of “compositions . . . which have been (or deserve to be) preserved.” Might we gain something by thinking about bigger, more lasting questions of literature’s truth, beauty, and goodness? There is precedent for sidestepping immediate political back and forth to pursue truth, beauty, and goodness on a much longer and more slowly unfolding timescale. Even in the midst of civil tumult that makes our current politics look tame, some nineteenth-century American writers found ways to create and comment on works of lasting beauty, truth, and goodness. Thoreau spent a couple of years at Walden Pond. Margaret Fuller spent a summer on the Great Lakes and the midwestern prairie. John Muir walked a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Emily Dickinson wrote poems and put them in boxes in her attic. Herman Melville wrote defiant novels that almost no one read from a farmhouse far from New York. W.E.B. Dubois wasn’t satisfied with mere political, social, and economic recognition for African Americans; he sung of spiritual and cultural equality. All this struck some of these writers’ contemporaries as irrelevant, frivolous, or irresponsible, but perhaps we can learn something from these acts of defiant disengagement. In English 344 this term we will attempt to lift our gaze from the controversies that are immediately in front of us to instead consider older, maybe even timeless, notions and representations of beauty, truth, and goodness. To do so, we will acquaint or reacquaint ourselves with a vocabulary of literary study that emphasizes appreciation and wonder a little bit more than demystification, destabilization, and deconstruction. We will test Rita Felski’s contention that “Works of art do not only subvert but also convert; they do not only inform but also transform . . .” We will read, talk about, and write about some really great books.