American Literature

A. The development of fiction in America owes much to four writers we have
studied this semester: Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. In a well-developed
essay, discuss the contributions of these four to the development of American
fiction, pointing out where there are similarities and differences between them.
In addition to any particular innovations they may have developed, consider their
use of basic fictional elements: plot, point of view, symbolism, and theme. Make
sure that your essay is focused, organized, and draws specific support from the
works we have read.
A. Most of the great thinkers and writers have been concerned in one way or another with the problem of evil. Discuss how four writers we have studied this semester (two before the midterm and two following the midterm) have handled this theme, comparing or contrasting as appropriate. Be both specific and selective in your remarks: draw upon relevant reading we have done, but do not try to demonstrate everything you know about these authors. Make sure your discussion is a unified essay
A. Consider the following two poems, one by Emily Dickinson, one by Walt Whitman. Neither were assigned or discussed this semester. In a unified essay, discuss how they are representative of these two poets’ styles and ideas.
Walt Whitman: “Beat! Beat! Drums! (in your anthology on p. 2936)
Emily Dickinson:
Some, too fragile for winter winds
The thoughtful grave encloses—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold.
Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look,
And sportsman is not bold.
This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,
Sparrows, unnoticed by the Father—
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.
A. One of the preoccupations of both Hawthorne and Melville is the basis and the nature of moral responsibility and the limitations under which it operates. Consider this question as it is exemplified in the characters of Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, the narrator in “Bartleby,” and Delano. Organize your answer in a plausible way, support your argument thoroughly by specific details and point out significant similarities and differences among the four characters and between the two writers.
1A. If you chose this options, make sure that you hit some key points. Irving is instrumental in the beginning of the short story (although Poe is the one who really makes it take off!). Poe certainly needs to be mentioned as the father of detective fiction and the gothic horror story. He can also be cited for his use of point of view—those crazy first-person narrators (Irving, of course, might be cited for the overall persona of Diedrich Knickerbocker, but Poe’s use is far different). It is hard to talk about Hawthorne’s contributions without mentioning the romance: he developed the American form of this genre, not only writing short story and fiction in that vein, but also writing critically about the genre in the Customs House Essay and in the Preface to The House of the Seven Gables. Melville and Hawthorne can also be seen as extremely symbolic writers, with Hawthorne verging on allegory. Melville in both “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno” can also be seen as developing the use of a first person narrator. Beyond this, you can also talk about the pervasive theme of evil in Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. Did you have to get all these aspects to do well—no, but you had to hit quite a few to do well. And, you may have emphasized other interesting points that were not crucial, but that helped your essay to score well.
2A. This is the question on evil. Clearly the early writers in the course are preoccupied with evil—some of the early diarists with the “evil” of the Indians around them, for example, or some of the early Puritan writers who see evil in the world as a major force to be reckoned with in the Christian’s struggle. I said that those early writers would come back to us throughout the course and Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville clearly take up the theme of evil as well. One could also include Whitman and Dickinson, who have very different views of evil. Again, you could have chosen widely for this one—the key was to compare and contrast, with clear focus and good specific support.
3A. There were many things you could say about the Whitman and Dickinson poems as representative works. You wanted to focus clearly, however, on some of the main ideas and stylistic things we talked about in weekly postings, for example, to make sure you did well here. Remember Whitman’s free verse style, his use of lists, his repetition, his view of the all-encompassing democratic view of society, and finally, the impact of the Civil War on him. All are reflected in “Beat! Beat ! Drums!.” In Dickinson, remember her use of awkward and compressed phrasing, her use of homely metaphors, her frequent writing about death, and her often simple, gentle tone. Again, this poem about the death of young children includes all of these aspects. Did you have to hit every one—no, but you should have gotten quite a few.
4A. This question asks you to consider the nature and limitations of moral responsibility. One of the first questions is who defines what is “moral responsibility.” You will find that in the characters listed in this questions, there is a pull and tug between what society considers moral responsibility and what the individual believes. That society or the individual may put different limits on such responsibility and those differing views may cause conflict in the work of fiction. In Hester Prynne we see someone with a strong sense of individual standards who defies society. Dimmesdale withers for quite a long time under societal pressure and then only challenges it as he dies, not having really to face the consequences. The narrator in “Bartleby” spends the entire story grappling with his own standards of how to treat “Bartleby” and ends up changed by the experience. Delano is another interesting study since ostensibly he is out to help a ship in distress when he takes up the story of “Benito Cereno.” But his own racist views, dictated by society, limit his view of the whole situation and never have him attacking the real questions of moral responsibility in the tale.