To a large extent, one of the central questions that comes up with the study of any national literature is that of identity. With American literature, that is certainly the case, and we have many sorts of iconic figures that represent “American Identity” at different stages in history—the Pilgrim, the Frontiersman, the sort of “everyman” who embodies those ideals of individualism, self-reliance, and forward-thinking that we hope define us as a nation.
The early 20th century signifies a change in that sense of homogeneity we often associate with the early American character. As Baym, et. al. notes:
American literature . . .registers all sides of the era’s struggles and debates, while sharing a commitment to explore the many meanings of modernity and express them in forms appropriate to a modern vision. Some writers rejoiced while others lamented; some anticipated future utopias and others believed that civilization had collapsed; but the period’s most influential voices believed that old forms would not work for new times, and were inspired by the possibility of creating something entirely new. (Baym, et. al, 2008, p. 1882).
Using one of the prompts below as the basis of your paper, write an essay that explores that central idea of the American as seeking and creating the “new.” Consider, too, the ways in which Baym suggests that “At the heart of the high modernist aesthetic lay the conviction that the previously sustaining structures of human life, whether social, political, religious, or artistic, had been destroyed or show up as falsehoods or, at best, arbitrary and fragile human constructions” (Baym, et. al, 2008, p. 1888). How does the literature you chose demonstrate that desire to reject the old standards of identity/role?
- Analyze James’ “Daisy Miller.” If we look at Daisy and Winterbourne as examples of Americans, what characteristics does James give to the modern American? What seems to be the message about non-conformity and resistance of tradition here, given what happens to Daisy and Winterbourne?
- Choose one of the short stories from our seminar (Jewett, Freeman, & Chesnutt). What is the story’s central point about individuality and conformity to social and cultural expectations?
Textual Support: You must use at least one texts from our readings in seminars 1 and 2 in your essay as support for your reasoning. Expect to provide clear quotations that are closely analyzed from the text to demonstrate how the reading during those first two seminars creates a sense of questioning what it truly means to be an American and the ways in which those writers are seeking to redefine their own roles (either in terms of literary heritage, in terms of race, or even in terms of class or gender). Do not use On the Road in this paper.
Length: Your essay should have no fewer than five paragraphs (you’ll actually need more) and should be no fewer than 1250-1500 words (approximately five double-spaced pages in Times New Roman 12 point), not counting the titl
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