Topics in the Literature of American Cultures

Topics in the Literature of American Cultures

Foundling America
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Cory Merrill
228 Dwinelle

Three incommensurable claims form the basis of America’s origin stories: America was found; America was founded; America was self-made. From Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America to the Pilgrims’ settlement, from the Sons of Liberty to the Founding Fathers, the dominant stories of America’s cultural founding draw heavily from contradictory themes of finding, abandoning, and founding one’s roots. While American origin stories often thematize the loss, abandonment, or reestablishment of family and heritage, these foundational myths also tend to obscure the history of imperialism, racial oppression, violence, and exploitation that forms American political bedrock. Put another way, American origin stories have their own history of abandonment, neglect, and disownment.

Who are the abandoned children of America’s myth-making? Who then are America’s true founding fathers? And to what degree is the U.S. a culture founded by (its) foundlings?

This course explores literary and visual materials produced in the U.S. by artists and writers who interrogate American foundational myths from the perspective of those simultaneously implicated in and, to an extent, orphaned by these myths. By revisiting American origin stories through these works, this course hopes not only to reach clarification on how themes of lost and found parentage, family, foundation, abandonment, and discovery underpin American cultural origins writ large, but also to gain a more critical understanding of American origin stories by investigating how they intersect with racial and ethnic categories. Can storytelling
restore the exclusions and erasures of America’s origin stories? Should it? How do American origin stories continue to regulate and reinforce political hierarchies of exclusion today, and how might the stories encountered in this course gesture at possibilities for revision and recuperation? That is, to what extent might they be considered their own (American) origin stories?

Required Texts:
Nella Larsen, Passing (Penguin Classics Edition) [ISBN: 978-0142437278] Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me [ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7]

Visual Materials:
William F. Buckley v. James Baldwin debate: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian, (Neil Diamond)
Selections from West World Seasons 1 and 2
Excerpts from The Chappelle Show (Dave Chappelle)
Selected skits from Key and Peele: “White-Sounding Black Guys,” “Phone Call” (Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele)
Episode 2 (“Parents”), Season 1 of Master of None (Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang)
Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
Additional required readings will be included in a course reader available for purchase from University Copy Service (2425 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94704)

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