A Road Course in American Literature

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I probably should not have taken the water. Blame scholarly curiosity. In 1803 a group of enslaved Africans jumped shipped here, into Dunbar Creek, an estuary on the leeward side of St. Simons Island in Georgia. Written records conclude that the slaves committed mass suicide by drowning but oral traditions –surviving to this day in literature — maintain that the water connected them to their ancestors, giving the captives power to fly back home.  West African beliefs, moreover, hold that after death one’s soul passes on, while the spirit remains with a place. I understood little of this upon my first visit. Feeling justified by the book I was writing, A Road Course in American Literature, I filled up a disposable bottle from the brackish low tide. I took home a souvenir. Now the water sits on my desk. So what am I to do?

The Road Course, as one would guess, is more than this single moral dilemma. Put simply, A Road Course in American Literature combines travel, memoir and traditional scholarship to explain my passion for the American survey to 1860, a class I have taught for the past fifteen years. Mixing long and short chapters both to explain and tell a good story, the book follows a two-part axiom: that travel can teach us about literature and that literature can guide us to a deeper understanding of place. The longer, geographically-framed essays explore familiar and lesser-known works from the sixteenth-century invasion of Florida through the Mexican War (1846-48). Shorter interchapters outline my classroom approach to select passages. Bibliographic essays, available on an accompanying website or ebook, stake out the scholarly background (thus recognizing academic debates, while keeping them to the side). The goal throughout is to invite general readers into a deeper engagement with American literary culture. I want to establish a way of writing that combines my own separate but overlapping interests as teacher, scholar, unrepentant tourist, father, friend and son.

Although purposely idiosyncratic, the Road Course certainly has predecessors. I draw from narrative scholarship used in the environmental humanities, from travel writers such as William Least Heat-Moon and Jack Kerouac, from midlife reflections on school like David Denby’s Great Books and Jane Tompkins’ A Life in School, and from literary essays by D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, Alice Walker, Susan Howe and others. The focus on place has a theoretical grounding as well. Travel lays bare the process of erasure, the act of renaming that occupies the core of colonialism. It forces an insulated academic to address legacies of removal that continue to this day, and how different people understand what N. Scott Momaday calls the “remembered earth.”

Through its conversational style and narrative approach, finally, the Road Course responds to a mounting crisis in scholarly publishing. As humanities funds dwindle and university presses wrestle with vanishing budgets, I welcome academic discourse back into the fold of a good story. All too often, scholars straightjacket themselves within convention, taking orthodox approaches to highly unorthodox material. (What would Emerson say about the articles published about him?) My goal is to follow the self, in a manner every bit as adventurous as the literature we read, into new cognitive terrain. Early American literature can lead us to exciting, if unsettling places.