Last year, on the eve of my lecture about Anne Hutchinson and Mary Rowlandson, I wrote a post over at PWHNY speculating about how I might change my American Literature I syllabus when I taught it in the spring of 2010:
It might be time to reframe the course. Rather than teaching The Puritan Origins of the American Self (the title of a classic account by Sacvan Bercovitch), I might instead teach the cosmopolitan origins of the American self, shifting the focus from Boston to New York.
Well, here it is, the spring of 2010, and I’ve done a modest bit of reframing, tinkering with the course rather than re-engineering it.
I spoke about cosmopolitanism and Barack Obama’s deliberative democracy on the first day, and I moved the land chapters of Moby-Dick up to the second lecture, so that the course is now framed by Melville’s novel. I used a brief account of Melville’s career to reinforce the idea of cosmopolitanism by describing the way in which Melville reverses both aspects of his own career as a whaler (having the Pequod sail west, when he sailed east) and the story of the wrecking of the Essex (having Ishmael encounter the cannibal first and then the whale). And I asked the question, Why does the novel’s “Loomings” chapter take place in Manhattan, suggesting that it is Melville’s way of aligning the narrative with what Tom Bender has called has called “the historic cosmopolitanism” of New York City.” (See Bender’s essay “New York as a Center of Difference” from The Unfinished City ), one of the touchstones of our Writing New York course and an addition to this year’s American Literature I syllabus.)
But this week we’ve moved back to Boston: Bradford and Winthrop on Monday, Hutchinson and Rowlandson. Explicitly telling the story of the Puritans from the vantage point of New York — perhaps by beginning with an account of Hutchinson’s death in the Bronx — will have to wait for yet another iteration of the course. For now, the more modest reframing will have to do.