If you have not already read the Exam 2 Prompt, which is located in the Week 16 module, STOP. Read the prompt before going any further.
For your second exam, you will choose one or more of the following questions to respond to, depending on which exam option you select. Please adhere to the requirements stipulated in the prompt. And keep in mind that many of the assigned primary texts from the second half of class have relevance for multiple topics, issues, and themes—for example, although George Washington Cable’s “Madame Delphine” was assigned during our week on regional fiction, it can also be read as a work of realism, and it clearly engages with the “problem of the color line,” and even with other less obvious topics such as “Americanization.” In other words, there are multiple ways to approach each of the assigned texts. Lastly, if you want to use your own secondary sources altogether, that’s fine, but I ask that they be scholarly and highly relevant to the text(s) or topic at hand.
1) Immigration in the second half of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries increased to levels previously unseen in the United States. The presence of so many foreign-born people led to reconsiderations of what it meant to be, and to become, “American.” How and why did postbellum writers variously conceive of “Americanization”? And you may want to keep in mind that some writers commented explicitly on that process, whereas others did so implicitly, and through a variety of writing modes. As Stephanie Foote notes, “regional writing gave strangers with accents literary recognition at exactly the same moment that accented strangers in the form of immigrants were clamoring for recognition and representation in the political arena” (5). What was at stake in how the immigrant Other was represented in the postbellum period? What versions of the United States were imagined or desired through such representations of both the immigrant and Americanization?
2) In Stephanie Foote’s book Regional Fictions, she explains that despite its short-lived popularity, regional fiction, or what is sometimes called “local color,” was one of the “most important . . . literary forms” of the nineteenth century (3). Foote explains that regional fiction is recognizable through formal characteristics such as the use of dialect, or through its nostalgic “portraits of preindustrial rural communities and people,” but her interest, she tells us, is primarily in how regional fiction “represented various sections of the consolidating nation to a readership that was conscious of itself as a national elite,” and which was located primarily in northeastern cities. How did regional fiction “serve the needs” of such reading publics?
3) Peter Messent argues that US literary realism of the postbellum period was “not a coherent and unified genre,” that it included a range of strategies and reasons for representing the real, the definition of which changed according to the author and the context. Nonetheless, it may be said that works of realism, generally speaking, emerged from and reflected on “the rapid and dramatic changes in American social conditions in the years following the Civil War,” and they aimed at “transparency,” even if they sought such transparency in very different ways. Of the many “social conditions” to which postbellum authors responded, one of the most important was what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “problem of the color line.” Write an essay exploring race as a subject of, and catalyst for, US literary realism. How and why did authors of the postbellum period attempt to represent the reality (or facts, truth) of race?
4) Write an essay exploring how writers of the postbellum period used various modes of writing to justify, and thus reinforce, or subvert the color line. (If choosing Exam Options 1 or 2, no secondary source is required for this prompt, but I would like to see at least four primary sources in your essay. If choosing Option 3, find and use at least one secondary source.)
5) “With its rapid expansion, its exploitative methods, its desperate competition, and its peremptory rejection of failure, post-bellum America,” according to Richard Hofstadter, “was like a vast human caricature of the Darwinian struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. Successful business entrepreneurs seem to have accepted almost by instinct the Darwinian terminology which had emerged from the conditions of their existence” (30). Why was Spencerian evolutionary theory so popular among a certain class of writers and readers in the postbellum United States? In what ways did it “serve” their “needs,” as Stephanie Foote might put it? How (to what ends) was Spencerian evolutionary theory variously applied in the United States? And finally, how did writers begin to challenge the assumptions behind social evolution? What ideas or theories did they replace it with?
6) As Amy Kaplan, for one, has demonstrated, critics construct histories of US literature in response to the political conditions of their own day and age. They tell stories, in other words, about the development and character of US literature that meet the social demands of their own historical moments. And as we’ve seen throughout the semester, the stories critics tell about US literature are often closely bound up with what Werner Sollors and Greil Marcus have called “fables” of America’s founding and development. How did late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century authors’ arguments about US literature reflect or respond to the unique social conditions of the times? To what extent did those arguments depend on fables of America’s founding and development (or vice versa)?
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