Catalog 2013-2014

American Identity and Literature of Nature

  • Semester: Fall
  • Course Number: HM381
  • Instructors: Stark Biddle
  • Credit: 3

Course Description

This course will explore how the treatment of nature in great works of American literature and art has shaped the American ethos. We will examine how the fictional, poetic and artistic treatment of the wild, the natural and the pastoral are linked to the American narrative and America’s conception of its distinctive identity. We will read from a broad variety of classic and modern works and explore the sometimes-subtle themes, images and stories that shape our values and the American “personality”.

Our readings and discussion will allow us to examine important questions that include:

How has the treatment of nature and wilderness in fiction, poetry and art shaped our conception of individualism and America's pragmatic self-confidence?

Has America's conception of its special "Destiny" been influenced by the artistic treatment of our natural heritage?

How has the impact of the literature of the wild, the natural and the pastoral influenced gender and racial perspectives and the construction of the "other"?

Can we discern a linkage between the fictional handling of nature and the wild and American attitudes toward development, industrialization and the free enterprise system?

How has a romanticized treatment of nature in fiction and art influenced the way we interact with the land?

Is there a dark strain in nature fiction that reflects or perhaps even influences the American psyche?

Our readings will be complemented by a series of films, and a discussion of important paintings and art.

In this course we will grapple with some readings that are considered "challenging". Although we will rely on our analytical capacities, our approach will not be pedantic or competitive.

Goals and Objectives

The Primary goal of this course is to deepen our analytical skills in order to understand how great works of fiction, poetry and art shape the American ethos and, by extension, our own values.

Secondary objectives include:

A deepening understanding and appreciation of a few of the great works of American literature and art.

An enhanced understanding of the formative power of art.

An opportunity to question our own assumptions and pre-dispositions toward established truths.

Students will be challenged to deepen their own understanding of the relationship between a piece of fictional literature or art and an event, trend or dominant theme in American history.


Much of our reading will come from iconic works of fiction that are not normally classified as "environmental literature" but rather employ natural, wild or pastoral motifs to shape plot, character, mood or intent. A few essays on American history and culture will also be included.


Students will be asked to prepare two papers. In the first you will be asked to write a 3-4 page short story using themes or motifs from nature, wilderness or the pastoral that are designed to influence the reader's attitude toward a particular value or public issue that you believe is important.

In the second paper you will chose an event, a social or political issue or characteristic of American culture or personality and analyze a work of fiction or art that has shaped that event or experience (Examples from which you may chose will be posted.)

In addition, each student will be asked to choose a book or short story, or painting or piece of music from an important American artist and to lead a class discussion on the impact and influence of this work on the American identity.


Classes will be conducted seminar style. Most classes will begin with a background discussion on the writer or artist and move to address a series of core questions regarding the work of fiction (or painting or film) under discussion. The overall approach will be one of mutual enquiry and exploration. Your teacher will provide some contextual material but in general the work of literature or art will be discussed on the basis of its intrinsic merit. Please come to class prepared to ask questions, offer comments, raise ideas and identify specific passages from the readings that you feel are important.

To benefit from the discussion, it is essential that students carefully read the material prior to the class. If you have trouble keeping up or if you face a conflict please let the teacher know.

Optional films and optional bi-weekly evening discussion sessions will be scheduled at the home of your teacher.

Optional field trips may include a hike up the artistically iconic Mt Mansfield near Stowe, a trip to the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont , a visit the St Johnsbury Athenaeum and a trip to the Robert Frost cabin in Ripton, Vermont.


General Class participation and contribution: 40%
Student led discussion: 15%
Short Story 20%
Short Essay 25%

Academic Honesty

You are expected to be familiar with the Sterling College Academic Honesty Policy.

Schedule and Reading List (Note: the reading list will be adjusted at the beginning of the course to reflect prior student reading. A packet of all required reading materials will be distributed prior to the first class.)

Introductory Session. Course Overview.

Please read in advance:

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Each and All and selected excerpts from Nature.
Langston Hughes: The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
Robert Frost: Directive. (Note: we will have a second chance to read and discuss this poem at the end of course.)

Also, please spend a few minutes studying the painting Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sydney Mount.

Defining the American Individual: 3 class sessions and 1 film discussion.

James Fennimore Cooper: Selections from The Deerslayer, The Pioneers, The Prairie. Willa Cather: Neighbor Rosicky.

Crane: The Open Boat; Kerouac, selection from Dharma Bums.

Melville: selections from Moby Dick ; Fitzgerald, last 2 pages of The Great Gatsby; Moby Dick, the film by John Huston

The Romance of Nature: 4 class sessions.

William Cullen Bryant: Thanatopsis; Washington Irving The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, Rip Van Winkle.

Walt Whitman: selections from Leaves of Grass stanzas1, 22, 31, 32, 46 and 52; Alan Ginsberg: America.

Edgar Allan Poe: Descent into the Maelstrom; Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Goodman Brown.

Emily Dickinson: : 214, I Taste A Liquor Never Brewed; 249, Wild Nights, Wild Nights; 274, The Only Ghost I Ever Saw; 288, I'm Nobody; 1079, The Sun Went Down; 1748, The Reticent Volcano Keeps; 1755, To Make a Prairie it Takes a Clover. Frank Lloyd Wright, Falling Waters.

Exceptional America: 3 class sessions.

Emerson: The American Scholar.

De Tocqueville: Democracy in America, excerpts; Franklin, the Biography of Ben Franklin, excerpts.

Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chapters VII and VIII.

The Mythic West: 2 class sessions.

Zane Grey: Riders of the Purple Sage, excerpts. Owen Wister: The Virginian, excerpts. The film High Noon.

Bret Harte: Outcasts of Poker Flat; John Steinbeck: Leader of the People.

Make it New! 1 class session.

Hemingway: Big Two Hearted River; Williams: The Red Wheelbarrow; Pound: In a Station at the Metro.

Dark Nature: 2 class sessions.

O'Connor: A Good Man is Hard to Find; Hemingway: Indian Camp.

London: To Build a Fire; Frost: Out Out; O'Brien: The Things They Carried.

Satire and Deconstruction. 1 class session

Leslie Marmon Silko: Storyteller; Robert Service: The Shooting of Dan McGraw and The Cremation of Sam McGee.

Alienation. 2 class sessions.

John Cheever: The Swimmer; JD Salinger: A Great Day for Banana Fish.

TS Elliot: The Hollow Men.

Acceptance and Conciliation. 1 class session.

Bishop: The Fish; Moore: The Fish; Oliver: Ghosts, When Death Comes; Frost: Directive (second reading); poems to be chosen and read by students.

Optional Films
The Old Man and the Sea
Grisly Man
Easy Rider
The Gold Rush
The Road
Riders of the Purple Sage
The Searchers

Paintings that may be viewed and discussed
John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark; Jerome B Thompson: The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain. Asher Durand: Kindred Spirits. Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire, Mountain Sunrise. Asher Durand, Twilight in the Wilderness; George Caleb Bingham: The Emigration of Daniel Boone. Charles Marion Russell: Selected Paintings. George Catlin: Selected Paintings; William Sydney Mount: Eel Spearing at Setauket

Ferde Grofe: The Grand Canyon Suite; the Hudson River Suite. Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring. Bruce Springsteen: Glory Days; Guthrie: This Land is Your Land. Katherine Lee Bates, America the Beautiful.