Fall 2020 - ENGL 347 D100

Studies in American Literature before 1900 (4)

Class Number: 4181

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Mo, We 2:30 PM – 4:20 PM

  • Prerequisites:

    Two 100 division English courses, and two 200 division English courses.



The study of selected works of American literature written before 1900. This course may survey a particular era or topic, and may be organized by various critical issues or approaches. Students with credit for ENGL 344 or 348 may not take this course for further credit.



In 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois wondered why black America was habitually associated with images of obligatory sacrifice. It’s no coincidence that only two years earlier Mark Twain penned (but feared to publish) an essay called “The United States of Lyncherdom,” or that ten years earlier Frederick Douglass suggested that the prevalence of lynching was proof either of a depraved government or a depraved citizenry. All were talking about the same traumatically routine fact of nineteenth-century American life: that however one defined the status quo, it often relied on the renunciation and at times extermination of non-white peoples. This course explores that fact and its literary representations by non-white and white writers alike.

Part 1 of the course focuses on the history and ramifications of slavery and structural racism. We’ll begin with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, writers whose work defines the slave narrative genre, before moving on to Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, a bedeviling analysis of the psychology of racism and revolt in the run up to the American Civil War. We’ll conclude with Charles Chesnutt’s “conjure” stories, which also scrutinize the psychology of racism and revolt, only this time from the perspective of Reconstruction and Jim Crow America. Part 2 focuses on the history and ideology of settler colonialism and its effect on American Indigenous peoples. We’ll start with the über concept Manifest Destiny, using it to frame the expulsion of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands, a process represented and debated in the writings of William Apess, Black Hawk, and Elias Boudinot, among others. We’ll then move on to the mid-nineteenth century notion of “Indian Hating,” focusing on its influence via popular literature by writers like James Hall before exploring its critique by Lydia Sigourney, Lydia Maria Child, and others.

Because this history informs so much that's going on right now, I’ll host optional Zoom coffeehouse meetings throughout the semester to discuss contemporary artistic treatments of African American and Indigenous social justice movements and these treatments' relationship to work we're reading. I’m hoping especially to use these “Zoffeehouses” to talk about films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Blood Quantum, a 2019 horror movie by Mi'kmaqi director Jeff Barnaby that’s garnered praise for its representation of settler colonialism not to mention its rather timely political take on pandemics.  

With the exception of the Benito Cereno, all readings will be available on our Canvas site. Course delivery will be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous. While I realize synchronicity will entail challenges, I’m confident we can create a simultaneously rigorous and supportive online community, one that allows for a reasoned and respectful exchange of ideas in real time, if not in real person.


Refine the understanding how language – especially figurative language – creates the world and perceptions of it.

Recognize complex relationships between texts and contexts (e.g., historical, social, cultural, political).

Understand key aspects of the histories, forms, principles, and contexts of literary expression in the nineteenth-century United States, especially with regard to the Indigenous and African American experience.

Identify the nineteenth-century roots of struggles for social justice and rights on the part of African American and Indigenous peoples in the United States.

Develop skills in analyzing and interpreting language and text, broadly defined, and learn advanced strategies for creating and communicating informed claims about them.

Use language, its history, and its capacities to engage with the ideas of others.


  • Discussion engagement (synchronous) 10%
  • Discussion board contributions (i.e., asynchronous writing) 20%
  • Paper 1 25%
  • Annotated bibliography 10%
  • Paper 2 35%


Assignments subject to change.

Your enrollment in this course acknowledges that remote study will entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes. Lectures will be asynchronous. Tutorials, on the other hand, will be synchronous, as will the optional Zoom coffeehouses.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who believe they may need class and/or exam accommodations, including in the current context of remote learning, are encouraged to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca, 778-782-3112) as soon as possible to ensure that they are eligible and that approved accommodations and services are implemented in a timely fashion. I am unable to grant accommodations for students unless they are deemed eligible by the Centre for Accessible Learning.


Obviously, you’ll need a computer or tablet, camera, and reliable internet access for this course. Headsets are helpful in blocking out distractions but certainly not necessary. My expectation is that students will have their cameras on during synchronous discussions. If you feel uncomfortable with that requirement, please discuss your concerns with me during the first week of class so that we can find a solution.

Did you know that students have access to free Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud? This would be a good time to upgrade your software.



The only text you'll need to purchase is Herman Melville, Benito Cereno, ed. Brian Yothers (Broadview, 2019; ISBN 9781554813094), which is available for sale on the Broadview website in paperback and in two digital formats: PDF and ePub. See https://broadviewpress.com/product/benito-cereno/#tab-description. Though there are public domain versions of this novella available, I’d prefer you have the Broadview edition because of its supplementary material, much of which will be assigned reading.

All other texts will be available for download from our Canvas site. These texts are either in the public domain or available under the “fair dealing” exception to Canadian copyright law.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

IMPORTANT NOTE Re 300 and 400 level courses: 75% of spaces in 300 level English courses, and 100% of spaces in 400 level English courses, are reserved for declared English Major, Minor, Extended Minor, Joint Major, and Honours students only, until open enrollment begins.

For all On-Campus Courses, please note the following:
- To receive credit for the course, students must complete all requirements.
- Tutorials/Seminars WILL be held the first week of classes.
- When choosing your schedule, remember to check "Show lab/tutorial sections" to see all Lecture/Seminar/Tutorial times required.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Teaching at SFU in fall 2020 will be conducted primarily through remote methods. There will be in-person course components in a few exceptional cases where this is fundamental to the educational goals of the course. Such course components will be clearly identified at registration, as will course components that will be “live” (synchronous) vs. at your own pace (asynchronous). Enrollment acknowledges that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes. To ensure you can access all course materials, we recommend you have access to a computer with a microphone and camera, and the internet. In some cases your instructor may use Zoom or other means requiring a camera and microphone to invigilate exams. If proctoring software will be used, this will be confirmed in the first week of class.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who believe they may need class or exam accommodations, including in the current context of remote learning, are encouraged to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca or 778-782-3112).