Early American Literature Survey Course

A picture of buffalo on a prairie
“Conserving the North American bison” by U.S. Geological Survey is marked under CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/cc0/1.0/

How to use this course

This is a 16 week, semester long college level survey course. The time free of the text is beginnings (pre-contact to 1890. There are more readings in the text than can actually be covered, so you should modify the assigned texts in your syllabus (to best fit your needs).

The course runs best in the form of a Socratic seminar- (whole class discussing the text in depth).

I usually provide three daily lecture questions. The intention of these questions is to get students to think and respond to each other. I always have students explain why or where they see X in the text (with references). Here are some questions I have used in the past:

  1. What’s going on in the text?
  2. Do you like the text? Why/not?
  3. What are the themes/images of the text?
  4. How does the specific text fit in with the time period or other texts?
  5. Is the text good/bad? Why?

Course Description

Early American Literature is the first of two courses comprising a selected survey of American literature.  In this course, we will focus on the literature of British-influenced North America written in English. The time period will roughly be 1600-1865.

We will explore the invention and formation of “Americanness” and “American literature” during this time of change and development, examining some of the fundamental ideas, myths, assumptions, intellectual concepts, and popular perceptions that still influence the ways in which Americans think about themselves.

Course Objectives

A student completing this course will be able to:

1. Become familiar with selected major and minor writers of each period

2. Become acquainted with significant ideas or social conditions of each period in order to determine the reason for an author’s position on a given subject

3. Become acquainted with such literary forms as narrative and lyric poetry, short stories, letters, and essays

4. Become familiar with literary devices or reinforce the knowledge of these devices, such as figures of speech, meter, symbolism, allusion, and foreshadowing, stream of consciousness, and flashback

5. Be able to evaluate and write a critical analysis of literary works


6. Be able to write logical, coherent phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, incorporating correct spelling, grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and punctuation

7. Be able to organize and present written communication logically

8. Be able to adopt written communication appropriate to the diversity of the audience



Short Reaction Essays (x15) 5 pts each             75 pts.    

Reading Leader Work                                         25 pts.                    

Literature Evaluation Essays (x2) 50 pts each          100 pts                 

How to Analyze Literature


Many people struggle to properly analyze literature. This difficulty comes from the fact that analyzing literature, poetry especially, requires more than just recognizing the poetic elements. You (the reader) must interpret, evaluate, and justify value in relation to a part or the whole poem. The TP-CASTT framework from ReadWriteThink is one frame that helps you interpret the message/meaning of a poem. You can then go further and evaluate or justify your ideas.


ASSIGNMENT DESCRIPTIONS: All papers must include APA format; double-spaced; Times New Roman; 12 pt font; Reference page                       

FORM FOR REACTION ESSAYS (RE) due every week: 1 page of actual text; 2 quotations

Answer these questions: Pick 1 author from our reading section. What do you like about this person’s writing? What do you dislike? What areas of the text stand out for you? Why?

LITERATURE EVALUATION (LE) ESSAY due at Midterm and Final: 6 pages; 6 quotations

#1- What does it mean to be a “new” nation? Define/explain the parameters of this idea for any group/author we’ve discussed.

#2- Analyze the themes and images in one author’s work. (May not pick Poe). What do they mean? How do you know? Do the themes/images change as the author ages?


#2- How does peer pressure/societal pressure play a role in this time period? Is the peer pressure important for your chosen author? How? Why?

READING LEADER: You must lead class discussion for a previously selected author. You should know the basic biographical information for your author and have AT LEAST 3 open-ended questions. Class discussions for an individual author can last from 20-60 minutes.

A poster from the time period. The poster says, "“I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America! If I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery"
““I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America! If I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery!” by Boston Public Library is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/



Syllabus and Agenda Overview; Basic Americas/US history lesson; Creation stories; Columbus

WEEK  2:

Smith; De Vaca; De las Casas

WEEK  3:

Frethorne; Winthrop; Morton; Bradstreet; Hutchinson; Bradford; Dyer; Taylor

WEEK  4:

Rowlandson; Mather; Edwards; Bolzius

WEEK  5 

Paine; Franklin; Madison; Henry; Hamilton; Declaration of Independence

WEEK  6:

Adams; US Constitution; Bill of Rights; Murray; Wheatley; Key; Lee

WEEK  7:

Emerson; Thoreau; Bryant; Longfellow

WEEK  8:

Irving; Whittier; Poe


Hawthorne; Freneau; Gould; Follen; Hale; Sigourney

Literature Evaluation (LE) #1


Turner; Garrison; Fugitive Slave Act of 1850


Beecher; Truth; Grimke; Declaration of Sentiments; Douglass; Jacobs




Harper; Horton; W. Wells Brown; Godey’s Lady Book; Howe


Lincoln; South Carolina Declaration of Secession; Gibbons; Timrod; Keckley


Chesnut; Williamson; Anderson; Whitman; Dickinson


Literature Evaluation (LE) #2

Early American Textbook

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