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EN9B1: Narratives of American Empire

Tutor: Mark Storey


“However unimportant America may be considered at present, there will assuredly come a day when this country will have some weight in the scale of Empires.” George Washington in a letter to Marquis de LaFayette, August 1786

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will –-we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” One of George W. Bush’s senior advisors to journalist Ron Suskind, October 2004

This module takes a long and a broad view -- from the seventeenth century to the present day, from the American West and the Atlantic Ocean to the Congo, the Caribbean, Vietnam, and Iraq -- in order to interrogate the cultural logic of US imperialism. While we therefore track the various social and political realities of US imperial formation (settler colonialism, continental expansion, militarised interventions and the networked power of economic hegemony) we will consider in particular the crucial role that narrative forms and literary language have played in this contested and fractious history. We investigate not just how various writers have confronted, critiqued, and sometimes celebrated an ‘American Empire’, but also how the operation of imperialism itself has relied on all kinds of narratives to prop it up. Our discussions, readings, and viewings will situate American modernity in a global history of imperialism and dispossession, whilst also being underpinned by a sustained attention to the often euphemistic language of imperial rhetoric: 'manifest destiny’, ‘exceptionalism’, ‘security’, and so on. Moving beyond a narrowly defined 'American' literature to a more comparative and global perspective, we touch on many familiar areas of American literary studies (the construction of race as a political category, the paradoxes of American republicanism, the confrontation with the wilderness, and so on) but reconsider them in the light of how American power has been extended, exerted, and imposed on the world since the 1600s. In other words, we will uncover a distinctly literary history of US imperialism.

**Please try to purchase or borrow the books. The short stories/essays will be supplied (as indicated). The films can be watched in the usual ways online, or purchased/borrowed as DVDs/Blurays, depending on availability and your preference. If you have any problems sourcing the texts please let me know.**
Week 1: Exceptionalism, Imperialism, Globalisation
Please read all these pieces -- some are quite short! -- preferably in the order they appear below:
Edward Said, 'Empire, Geography, and Culture' from Culture and Imperialism (1993)
Amy Kaplan, extract from The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture (2002)
Anne McClintock, 'Imperial Ghosting and National Tragedy' from PMLA (129.4; October 2014), pp. 819-829.
Daniel Immerwahr, extract from How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019)
Mark Storey, 'Empire' (extract from Time and Antiquity in American Empire, 2021)

Week 2: Indian Country
Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration (1682)
Zitkala-Sa, 'School Days of an Indian Girl' from American Indian Stories (1921) or available online here.
Vine Deloria, Jr. 'Indians Today, the Real and the Unreal' from Custer Died For Your Sins (1969)

Week 3: White Man's Burden
Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838)
*As is usually the case with major nineteenth-century texts, this is available for free online. These versions aren't always particularly reader friendly, however, so you may wish to get hold of the Penguin or Oxford editions (which have notes, introductions, and so on). They are both available cheaply at your usual online booksellers.*

Week 4: African/American
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (1992): extract 1, from 'Chapter 1: Black Matters'; extract 2, 'Chapter 2: Romancing the Shadow'
Pauline Hopkins, 'Talma Gordon' (1900)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, 'The Case for Reparations' (2014)

Week 5: At the Frontier
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)
American Sniper (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2014)

Week 6 (Online): Making the World Safe for Democracy
Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

Week 7: The New Monroe Doctrine
Joan Didion, Salvador (1983)
Salvador (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1986)

Week 8: History is a Nightmare
Tim O'Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (1994)
Apocalypse Now (Dir. Francis Ford Coppolla, 1979)

Week 9: Heart of Darkness
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998)

Week 10 (Online): Ghost Wars
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary (2015)