“Rethinking Early American Literature”:
A Prefatory Note from Plymouth State University’s “Rethinking Early American Literature” Alumni (revised Fall 2021)
In this class, we questioned the very parameters of what counts as American literature. Is American literature defined by geographical boundaries? Experiences? Histories? Themes? What is the difference between American literature and American history? Who determines what counts as American literature? How does the in-depth study of early American literature prompt us rethink representations of American culture today? In our global era, it is clear that past definitions of American literature must be revisited. Many of these questions remain unanswered and continue to engage scholarly debate. This anthology moves to answer the question “what is American literature?” by framing the texts in new and provocative ways that fit the modern age.
This anthology is unique because it was made by students, for students. Exploring American literature contemplatively and critically, it moves beyond the voices of old white men talking about even older white men. This anthology provides specific details and insights into multiple texts from diverse authors that are important representations of American literature. It affords readers the opportunity to explore various texts in relation to other works, their historical context, and the ever-shifting definition of American Literature. However, this anthology takes things a step further because it makes connections between important works of American literature and contemporary culture (such as films and other references). In this way, this anthology is relevant to students today. It provides insight into what has happened in the past, while also giving students the tools to think critically about what’s happening within the field of American literature in the present.
Moreover, this anthology asks us to consider what it means for literature to be “American.” How can we possibly define American literature without comprehending the fragility, complexity, and pride that accompanies such a term? “America” can mean the United States and all that comes with being a resident in such a nation, but it is also the entirety of two continents and wherever their influence spreads. To what extent does American literature emerge from a collectively shared identity rather than a set of arbitrary geographical constraints? This anthology tries to unpack that by combining multiple famous texts with a wide range of ideas by each individual in the classroom.
We do not claim to have a “perfect” or “complete” representation of American literature. Rather, we offer an unexpected combination of texts, headnotes, provocations, and class writings that explore and question the underpinnings of American literature as a corpus. Since learning is a collaborative exercise, we hope that future PSU English students will feel inspired to contribute to, annotate, and continue this project, constantly refining, remixing, and reworking it going forward.
There are many ways to anthologize early American Literature. In this class, we chose to question every way it could be anthologized. By doing so, we have whittled early American literature down to make our own, new anthology that is meant to be a free resource for all. American literature is ever-changing. This anthology sets out to help people see that, while also highlighting important themes and ideas about all of these texts. And while American literature is ever-changing, the contributors to this anthology are as well with each year, keeping it full of new and fresh ideas.
In our blog posts and our headnotes we tried our very best to be original, provoke thought, and even weave some comedy and sass in there. The goal is to draw the reader in, and educate them in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy. The readings are fun and amusing while still answering critical questions about literature. Hopefully reading them will help future PSU students have fun while learning.
There is a lot to be considered when anthologizing a text in an American literature anthology. We hope to shift the focus from the nation to the larger, global implications for what defines something as “American.” It seems imperative that scholars continue to question what truly characterizes American literature within and beyond national boundaries.
Through the creation and preparation of this anthology, we have improved our writing abilities and gained a more in-depth understanding of the texts. The current version of this anthology represents each and every student’s thought process and deeper reading skills. It features our own unique textual interpretations and what they may mean to us on a more personal level. It also allows for us to take pride in our hard work and dedication throughout the semester, as we make our voices heard in a public context.