What is the course about?
Three voices of startling originality marked the coming of age of American Literature in the years immediately preceding, and during the onset of, the Civil War. The first words they uttered resonate with all that was to follow - the sonic power of Whitman’s “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” in 1855 arrived hot on the heels of Melville’s evocation of an epic wilderness, “Call me Ishmael” (1851); and in April 1862 Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter postmarked ‘Amherst’ with four poems containing ‘a truth so searching that it seems a condensed summary of the whole experience of a long life’, the first of which was “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”… The mythic proportions of Moby Dick, Song of Myself and Emily Dickinson’s 1800 poems bound tight in their fascicles still dazzle and confound each generation of readers, having lost none of their incendiary force. We will explore them at close hand, side by side in an extended dialogue taking in the contexts in which they were written, the nature of their achievement as works of virtuosic linguistic experimentation, their cultural reception and influence, and what they mean to us today.
Stephen Winfield has lectured in English for over thirty years. He taught Language and Literature at Richmond upon Thames College in Twickenham from 1989 to 2017, and was Coordinator of the International Baccalaureate there from 2004 to 2016. He has also lectured in English Literature at the University of Katowice in Poland and taught Business English in Paris. He has taught a range of EFL courses at Richmond College, for the Bell School of Languages, the Sinoscope Project at Kings College London and the BBC Summer School. He has taught classes in English, American and International Literature at City Lit since 2014.
What will we cover?
Our main focus will be on three texts: Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in its first, 1855 edition (Penguin Classics), “Moby Dick, or, The Whale” (Penguin Classics) and “Emily Dickinson: The Complete Poems” (Faber and Faber). For Melville I would also suggest the anti-visionary story ‘Bartleby, The Scrivener’ as an intriguing starting point. Biographies and social, political and intellectual history will inform the discussion alongside literary-critical commentary as well as the creative responses of other American writers. What place do these seminal figures have in the American imagination today? How much does exposure to the three individuals’ lives, reputations, and iconicity enable or detract from a greater investment in the act of reading itself, or what Roland Barthes called ‘Le Plaisir du Texte’? Above all, what can each text teach us about the others, brought together over the course of a single day?
What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...
• Discuss with confidence and some literary-critical finesse the studied texts
• Place them historically and in relation to the themes and preoccupations demonstrated by the writers’ published works as a whole
• Apply the knowledge acquired to your own further reading in 19th century American Literature and beyond.
What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?
4. What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?
No previous knowledge is required. Anyone who enjoys close reading and is willing to take part in discussion is welcome.
How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?
There will be a variety of teaching methods, including direct tutor input, power point, video and audio clips. Small group or pair work will be encouraged and there will also be plenary feedback and discussion. There will be opportunities to express why individually we are participating on the course and what we hope to take away from it. No work outside class apart from any reading of one or more of the featured texts you are able to do beforehand.
Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?
t would be helpful if you could read some or any of the named texts before coming to class, but this is not necessary. The tutor will provide samples from each of them, as well as examples of other works that feature in discussion.
When I've finished, what course can I do next?
Please see our literature courses on the web at www.citylit.ac.uk under History, Culture and Writing.