Books that Changed American History

Welcome to the first (of hopefully many) Dream English Courses series! Each week, I will design an eighteen-week course around a central theme, with an eye to diversity in the authorship (not just straight, cis, white men!). In honor of the Fourth of July, this week’s course will be a general overview of books that are not only influential, but that actually changed some part of American history. This course spans from the pre-Revolutionary stirrings to twentieth century voices advocating social change and seeks to determine what makes an influential work.

Books that Changed American History

Unit I: So you want a Revolution? (2 weeks)

Texts: Common Sense by Thomas Paine and The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay

Other Historical Sources: The Declaration of Independence

Overarching questions: What circumstances led to these authors desiring a split from England? What format do these texts assume, and how does their rhetoric affect the reader? What exactly were the revolutionaries calling for?

Unit II: “All men are created equal…” (3 weeks)

Texts: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas by Frederick Douglas and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Other Historical Sources: The Declarations of Secession, The Gettysburg Address, The Emancipation Proclamation, The Thirteenth Amendment

Overarching questions: Who were the voices for and against slavery? What drove the Southern states to secede from the Union? How do these texts differ from the ones that inspired the American Revolution? What are their rhetorical strategies? Lincoln referred to Stowe as “the little lady who started this great big war.” How accurate is this valuation? How do these books stand up to the moral judgement of today?

Unit III: Foundations of Thought (2 weeks)

Texts: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Other Historical Sources: “Civil Disobedience,” current events

Overarching questions: What American values do you see developing with these authors? How do their philosophies continue to influence America today, and how did they influence events in the past? What is their tone compared to the revolutionaries and the abolitionists?

Unit IV: American Dream (5 weeks)

Texts: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Other Historical Sources: None

Overarching questions: What do the two narratives have in common, and how do they differ? What institutions are keeping these families down? What is the American Dream, and who was able to attain it during this time? What sort of reform do these texts call for, and how does it compare to the reform that the other authors we’ve read called for? And how do they all compare in tone and style?

Unit V: Forward Thinking (4 weeks)

Texts: The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Autobiography of Malcom X by Malcom X, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Other Historical Sources: “I Have a Dream,” The Declaration of Sentiments, The Nineteenth Amendment, The Civil Rights Act, current events

Overarching questions: How did these social movements differ in their approach to liberation? How did their strategies compare to strategies of the past? How successful were they? What do these authors say that still sounds true, and what has changed? How do the voices within a movement differ from each other?

Unit VI: Counter-culture (2 weeks)

Texts: Howl by Allen Ginsberg and On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Other Historical Sources: The First Amendment

Overarching questions: How did counter-culture America differ from the other Americas? How was it the same? What drives this movement, and how is it different from the others? What are these authors doing stylistically? How do they define freedom? What does it mean to censor a work?

And that’s it! Eighteen weeks of American history. Now off for some more pie.

 

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