ENGL 316
Unfinishing America Fall 2024
Division I Writing Skills Difference, Power, and Equity
Cross-listed AMST 326

Class Details

The Great American Novel is a moribund cliché. Few would argue that any one work of fiction could capture the essence of American life. In this class, we will flip the Great American Novel on its head by reading Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel. After publishing the acclaimed Invisible Man in 1952, Ellison seemed poised to deliver the next Great American Novel. But he never did. When he died in 1994, 42 years later, he left behind thousands of pages of material, but no finished second novel. Why wasn’t he able to finish it? Some of it was bad luck. Some of it was a struggle with genre and form. However, perhaps the real reason Ellison’s novel proved impossible is what it was trying to say. This is a book about the historical trauma of racism. Therefore, the thesis of this class is that the Great American Novel cannot be written as long as American history remains whitewashed. Ellison’s manuscript shows this in surprising ways, from its depiction of racial passing and the taboo of interracial sex to its extended exploration of Black and Indigenous cultures in the former Oklahoma Territory. In addition to Ellison, we will read the work of the Chicano author Tomás Rivera, whose fragmentary fictions provoke similar questions. This class culminates in a final project that asks students to “unfinish” an American cultural object.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 15
Expected: 15
Class#: 1441
Grading: no pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Assignments include a daily free-writing exercise, graded note-taking, three 1-2-page reflective essays, two brief creative writing assignments, and a final creative project.
Prerequisites: None
Enrollment Preferences: AMST majors, then juniors and sophomores
Distributions: Division I Writing Skills Difference, Power, and Equity
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
ENGL 316 Division I AMST 326 Division II
WS Notes: Each student will be responsible for producing a reader's guide to Ellison's unfinished second novel. Students will write, rewrite, and revise their reader's guide throughout the semester. Three drafts will be due throughout the semester. A quality reader's guide will highlight the book's main themes, profile the main characters, and retrace the book's development. Students will also complete one draft of a guide to Rivera's novella, due at the end of the semester.
DPE Notes: "Unfinishing America" satisfies the Difference, Power and Equity requirement because it calls into question mainstream American culture from Black, Chicano, and Indigenous perspectives. It interrogates the relations of power that have driven American history, from the Civil War and Westward expansion in the 19th century to the struggle for Civil Rights against Jim Crow in the 20th. Finally, it asks what it would mean to have true equity amidst great diversity in American culture.
Attributes: AMST Arts in Context Electives
AMST Comp Studies in Race, Ethnicity, Diaspora

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