Spring 2014, American Literature’s Spirits, drafty syllabus

I’ve made some headway on designing a syllabus for my course American Literature’s Spirits. It’s still in its beginning stages so any/all feedback is, as always, very much appreciated. Here you go:


“American Literature’s Spirits”

Course Description

American literature has a thing for ghosts. Think of Edgar Allan Poe’s lady ghosts and all that ghost sex! Or Toni Morrison’s black ghosts. And how about those Jewish spirits in Tony Kushner’s Angel’s in America? Let’s face it, American literature is just plain spooky. The question is why?

In this course, we’ll ask this very question: why is American Literature so enamored with the ghostly, the ghastly, and the supernatural? As part of this inquiry, we’ll think through the relationship between the supernatural and history itself. Specifically we’ll ask, what it is about the US’s particular history–a history that is informed by enslavement, forced land removal, and immigration–that makes it such a rife space for the appearance of all sorts of ghosts. We’ll ask then a series of questions that look something like this: why is American literature haunted in the way that it is? How does haunting disrupt our notion of traditional historical progression? What does it mean when the past refuses to stay put, bubbles up, and careens into the present? What kind of historical possibilities does the novelistic form provide that the history textbook simply can’t?

Over the course of the semester, we’ll do some serious soul searching, tracking down the appearance of ghosts and spirits in 19th and 20th century American literature. We will pay special attention to souls that are given a race, gender, and/or sexuality.  We’ll think about who has a soul, who doesn’t, who can get it, and who can’t. Some food for thought: W.E.B. Du Bois maintains that black folk are gifted with second-sight and possess two souls, the 19th-century transcendentalist Margaret Fuller claims women possess a special electrical composition, and Yiddish culture understands the soul, or neshama, as exclusively Jewish. We’ll consider the significance of employing a spiritual rhetoric (like the examples just mentioned) against the backdrop of a mainstream science which was often racist, sexist, and homophobic. In other words, we’ll ask whether a belief in spirits, ghosts, and generally spooky things can be its own form of resistance against social and historical injustice.

Writing assignments will include regular blog posts, one short archival project (3-4 pages), and a final paper preceded by a paper proposal. Literary readings may include works by Edgar Allan Poe, W.E.B Dubois, Toni Morrison, Pauline Hopkins, Philip Roth, Tony Kushner, S. Ansky, Rose Terry Cooke, and others. 

Required Texts

The following texts are available at the bookstore and are required for this course. I’ve included the ISBN number and the specific editions we will be using in case you’d like to order them from Amazon, etc.

Ansky, S. The Dybbuk and Other Writings by S. Ansky. ISBN: 0300092504.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and in the Cage. ISBN: 0375757406.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Parts I and II. ISBN: 1559362316.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. ISBN: 1400033411.

Roth, Philip. The Ghostwriter. ISBN: 0679748989.


In the last few classes of the semester, I’ve assigned a number of films. We will not be screening the films in class; instead, we will devote class time to discussion about the film. This means that all films must be watched before the date it is listed on the syllabus. The films will be placed on reserve at Lilly. To make use of the reserve, just look up the film in the library’s catalog at library.duke.edu and jot down the reserve number. Once you’ve got the number, you can go to the circulation desk at Lily and request the film. Films on reserve are given a 3 hour viewing period. You can watch the film in Lilly. Some of the films may be available on Netflix instant play or Amazon/Amazon prime instant play.

Mandatory Office Hour Meetings

I will require that you meet with me at least two times over the course of the semester: once at the beginning so we can start to talk about your interests/concerns, and a second time after you have received comments on your research proposal. I will hand out a sign up sheet for available times so we can meet one-on-one. You are welcome to schedule as many meetings over the course of the semester, but I make these two meetings mandatory so I can get to know you better. I will send out a sign-up sheet of times for each meeting.


  • Weekly Informal Blog Posts You will be required to post a blog entry (250-500 words) each week that responds to any aspect of the reading/film/photographs we look at that week. These posts informal and intended to give us all an idea of what people are thinking about before we enter the classroom for discussion.
  • Small Archival Project (2-3 Pages): I will ask that you find at least one piece from the archive that is related to spirits in American literature. It may be an image, an excerpt from a 19th-century book or pamphlet. You will produce a 2-4 page response in which you explain where the image comes from, how it relates to the course, specifically the idea of spirits in American literature, and why this piece is an important find. You will post an image or transcription along with your response on our class blog so that we may crowd source.
  • Tentative Paper Proposal and Working Bibliography (2-3 pages): You will be required to draft a research proposal that will give a general idea of the topic you would like to pursue for you research paper. Since you will have ample time for revisions, the very first draft you hand in I will treat as a tentative paper proposal. This means that you are not locked into that paper topic. You may find as we go through the course material that you would like to write on an entirely new topic; or, you may decide that you like your general topic and would like to stick with it.
  • First Draft of Final Paper and Final (10-12 pages): Your final paper will be on a topic of your choice, loosely related to this course, that is communicated to me in your paper proposal. I am pretty flexible and want you to write on topics you are invested in, so please feel free to be creative. The first draft will be due early so that I you will have ample time to revise and workshop your papers.


Week 1     Introduction

“The Strange Case of George Dedlow.”
Week 2

Selections from W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk.

Selections from The Conjurewoman Tales.

Week 3    Hurston, “Spunk.”

Morrison, Beloved.  

Week 4    Morrison, Beloved.

                   Library Visit

Week 5     Hawthorne, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.”

Selections from Spirits of America: Intoxication in American Literature.”

Irving, “Rip Van Winkle.”

Week 6    Hopkins, Of One Blood.

Week 7    Hopkins, Of One Blood.

Week 8    Archival Project Due and In Class Discussion of Projects

                  S. Ansky, “The Dybbuk.”

Week 9   The Dybbuk, film, 1937

                 The Possession, film, 2012.                

Week 10    Roth, The Ghost Writer.
Week 11    Roth, The Ghost Writer.                 

Week 12    Paper Proposal and Bibliography Due

Kushner. Angels in America Part I

Angels in America Part II

Week 13  Cooke, Rose Terry. “My Visitation.”

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.”

Rohy, Valerie, essay “Ahistorical.”

Week 14   James. Selections from The Turn of the Screw.

                   Turn of the Screw. Film.

Week 15 Draft of Final Paper Due for In Class Workshop


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