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Steven Hoelscher, Chair Burdine 437, Mailcode B7100, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-7277

Fall 2009

AMS 355 • Main Currents of American Culture to 1865

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
29945 TTh
12:30 PM-2:00 PM
bur 116
Thompson, S

Course Description

In recent years, we Americans have increasingly defined ourselves in terms of our actions and reactions in particular moments of crisis. Events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina have provoked debates about the substance of our national identity and character and have revealed deep fault lines in the bedrock of our society. This interdisciplinary course examines a range of cultural and social transformations in what we now call the United States of America from the colonial period until the end of the Civil War. Each week we will take as our starting point a particular moment of crisis, paying attention to the political, social and cultural forces that gave rise to the crisis as well as the dispersal, transformation and/or entrenchment of these forces in its aftermath. The critical moments we will focus on will include the Salem Witch Trials; the Election of 1800; the "American Renaissance"; and John Brown's raid on Harper’s Ferry among others. Our semester will culminate, of course, in the crisis of the Civil War. We will examine the British, (and to a lesser extent the Spanish and French) colonial legacies in the United States and social formations among the diverse groups of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans both within and on the borders of these colonies. We will watch these colonies declare independence, fighting and writing the United States into being. We will explore the attempts of both ordinary and extraordinary Americans as they continued to debate and articulate the meanings of, exceptions to, and shortcomings in the American creed.

In this course, we will consider many dimensions of American national identity: What is the proper relationship among the nation, the states, and individuals? How have Americans negotiated the tension between republicanism and democracy or between religious and secular world views? What would it mean to recognize slavery as one of the founding institutions of the United States? We will study the formation of American identity around differences of race, class, gender, religion, and region. We will study these developing identities through literature, political documents, painting, music, newspapers and other media.

Grading Policy

2 in-class exams: 30% each In-class final: 40%


Possible Texts Mary Rowlandson, Sovereignty and Goodness of God Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer James Fennimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass And a course packet of shorter readings


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