Essays Content

  1. Choose one. You may not choose the same author as the one you chose for your presentation.

    Frederick Douglass: Note this important passage from The Narrative of the Life: Mr. Auld found out what was going on [that Sophia Auld was teaching Douglass to read], and at once forbade [her] to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that is was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words further, he said, “If you give a n—— an inch, he will take an ell. A n—– should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n—– in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that n—- (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” Douglass says of this, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” What is the pathway? What exactly does he understand? In an ironic way, is Mr. Auld unexpectedly correct, that education will make Douglass “unmanageable?” Does this eventually lead him to freedom? How so? Explain Douglass’ epiphany, using textual evidence from elsewhere in the narrative.

    Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson: Compare and contrast the Dark Romanticism of Poe with the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. How is Poe complicating Emerson’s very idealistic portrait of human nature, of the human mind, of human passions, and so forth? Why is he doing so, in your opinion?  How can they both be considered Romantics when they offer such contrasting views of humanity? Be sure to use ample evidence from both authors’ writings.

    Herman Melville: Melville’s Captain Vere in Billy Budd is a highly ambiguous character. How do you judge his choices as regards Billy? Are we to respect the wise captain for his courageous commitment to his principles, or are we to condemn him for weakness and cowardice? In what ways does the text invite both contradictory readings? How have you resolved this for yourself? Why do you think Melville has taken such pains to keep Captain Vere ambiguous? Compose a detailed character study of Captain Vere in which you take a strong stand for your opinion of him.

    Walt Whitman: A word often associated with Walt Whitman is “abundance.” For Whitman, less isn’t more. More is more. He’s never content with just one example. Why not twenty or even thirty? Look at “Song of Myself,” for example. He spins out long lines that tumble one after the other, piling image upon image. He loves long lists that sometimes seem like they’ll never end. He takes great pains to include all kinds of people (all ages, races, classes, genders, professions, temperaments, etc.), in all kinds of situations. What is he up to here? Why, in your opinion, does he attempt to pile up so much of everything, even at the risk of boring or exasperating his readers? Some people say it’s his way of celebrating democracy or America. How exactly would that work?  

    Emily Dickinson: A word often associated with Emily Dickinson is “eccentric.” As we’ve learned, she almost never left her home for the last twenty years of her life. She attended her father’s funeral while hiding in her bedroom with the door cracked open so she could hear. She was known in her neighborhood as the “Woman in White” because she wore a costume unusual for her time. And most importantly, she wrote over 1200 poems no one even knew existed until after her death. Beyond this personal eccentricity (mental illness? personality disorder? courageous non-conformity?), her poetry itself is highly eccentric. She loves unconventional capitalization, odd punctuation, arresting images, slant rhymes, inconsistency, and so forth. Do you agree with most readers that these eccentricities are actually among the poems’ greatest qualities? How does her eccentricity affect your reading of her poems? How does it invite you to engage with her ideas and her themes in a way that a more conventional form would not?  

    About 1000-1500 words required

    Be sure to quote frequently from your chosen texts. About 15-20% of your overall word-count should consist of quotations. Use at least three quotations per body paragraph and analyze them closely.

    Be sure to integrate, cite, and document your quotations correctly according to MLA style.

    We write about literature in the present tense.

    Grading criteria:
    • Substantive points of argument for thesis and topic sentences
    • Close/detailed/precise analysis of texts
    • Theoretical sophistication, depth of thought
    • Literary-historical context in the introduction paragraph and, when appropriate, throughout.
    • Overall quality of your writing: organization, style, grammar/mechanics
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