Skip to main content Skip to navigation

EN2B2/EN3B2 US Writing and Culture 1780-1920

This module is not currently running.

Module Convenor: Myka Tucker-Abramson

*The new syllabus for 2017-18 is now available (click here)*


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the United States was an experiment in republicanism consisting of 15 states (with a total population of around five million people) on the eastern half of the North American continent, bordered by the Spanish, French, and British Empires. By the outbreak of the First World War a little over a hundred years later, it was the biggest economy in the world with a population in excess of ninety million, its land mass extending to the Pacific Ocean, with overseas territories in the Philippines and throughout the Caribbean.

This module tells the story of the rise of the modern United States in the ‘long’ nineteenth century through a detailed exploration of its challenging, diverse, and varied literary history. The ambitions of the module are threefold: to familiarize you with important texts by nineteenth-century US writers and the various means of interpreting them in our own twenty-first century; to situate American writing within the transformative and traumatic events of the time; and to give you a sense of the critical and theoretical field that has analysed and understood this rich body of work.

Because the module assumes no prior familiarity with US cultural history, and the range of potential material in our period is vast, we won't be covering it in strictly chronological fashion. Instead, the module will consist of four thematic units, each taking a different perspective on the period and each outlining a sometimes radically different take on the story of a nation from its troubled birth to its ascedendancy as a global power.

By the end of this module you will have

• Read a range of US writing between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries
• Become familiar with issues of republicanism, empire, race, slavery, gender, and class, and their representation in C19 US texts
• Developed a sense of the social and historical contexts pertinent to the texts we read
• Sharpened your awareness of different critical approaches to reading and interpreting these texts
• Be prepared for further study or research in the field of American literature
• Improved your ability to closely analyze textual passages
• Increased your argumentative skill in writing academic essays

Lecture Notes

Lecture notes are available hereLink opens in a new window


1 x 2500 Word Essay - Term 1, Week 10. Essay questions are available hereLink opens in a new window
1 x 4000 Word Essay - Term 3, Week 2. Essay questions are available hereLink opens in a new window


1 x 2 hour seen exam


One of the arguments underpinning this module is that understanding the 19th-century is crucial for understanding the rise of Trump. Throughout the module, we have looked at a number of texts – Charles Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition (1901) for instance – that I have argued help elucidate the “revolutionary ‘now-time’” of Trump.

For the last week of Term 2, you will choose a reading or set of readings that you think help illuminate the present. Starting in Week 3, you will form groups of 5-6 and collectively nominate a text (or set of readings) that you think we should read. More information available hereLink opens in a new window and presentation groups are available hereLink opens in a new window.

Suggested Further Reading

The best over-all text book is Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!: An American History (2004)

Further Historical Sources

Baptist, Edward The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014)
Beckert, Sven Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015)
Berman, Jacob Rama American Arabesque: Arabs and Islam in the Nineteenth Century Imaginary (2012)
Blackburn, Robin An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (2011)
---. The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (2013)
---. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848 (2011)
Blight, David Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War (2002)
Escobedo, Elizabeth From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front (2013)
DuBois, WEB. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935)
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (2014) Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (2002)
Geggus, David Patrick The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History (2014)
Gutterl, Matthew Pratt American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation (2008)
James, CLR Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938)
Johnson, Benjamin Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (2005)
Johnson, Walter River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013)
Levine, Bruce Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War (2005)
Levine, Robert Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass and the Politics of Representative Modernity (1997)
McPherson, James Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988)
Mintz, Sidney Sweetness and Power: Place of Sugar in Modern History (1986)
Morgan, Edmund American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975)
Moses, Wilson Jeremiah The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1988)
Ostler, Jeffrey The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee (2004)
Robinson, Cedric Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983)
Smith, Carl Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief (2007)
Trachetnberg, Alan The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (1982)
Welter, Barbara Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1976)
Williams, Eric Capitalism and Slavery (1944)
Woodward, C. Vann The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955)
Wong, Eddie Racial Reconstruction: Black Inclusion, Chinese Exclusion, and the Fictions of Citizenship (2015)

Further Literary Sources

Benn Michaels, Walter The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987)
Brickhouse, Anna Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (2004)
Carby, Hazel The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987)
Dennin, Michael Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working Class Culture in America (1998)
Fleissner, Jennife. Woman, Compulsion, Modernity (2004)
Gilman, Susan Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult (2003)
Gilroy, Paul The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (1993)
Greeson, Jennifer Rae Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature (2010)
Hartman, Saidiya Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997)
Kaplan, Amy The Social Construction of American Realism (1988)
---. Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Empire (2002)
Lye, Colleen America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (2004)
Eds. Luciano, Dana and Ivy Wilson Unsettled States: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies (2014)
Merish, Lori Archives of Labor: Working Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States (2017)
---. Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature (2000)
Shapiro, Stephen. The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World System (2008)
Slotkin, Richard Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973)
Storey, Mark Rural Fictions, Urban Realities: A Geography of Gilded Age American Literature (2013)
Streeby, Shelley American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (2002)
Tompkins, Jane Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (1986)
---. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1993)