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Literature 4A: American Literature, 1865-1917



The end of the American Civil War (1861-65) inaugurated a period of vast economic and industrial expansion in the U.S., attracting millions of immigrants in pursuit of the American Dream. The promise of social and economic betterment also lured masses of rural Americans to cities like Chicago, which almost overnight was transformed from a backwater into a metropolis. The expanding economy enabled large numbers of Americans to join the ranks of the middle class, while a happy few gained fortunes. For many others, however, facing long working hours in the factories and the squalor of city slums, America turned out to be a land of broken dreams. Widespread corruption earned the post-Civil War era the name of the Gilded Age. The Civil War ended slavery, but Jim Crow laws in the South relegated the newly freed blacks to second-class citizenship. These historical developments and the emergence of a consumer culture had a profound impact on the literary world, creating a mass market for fiction and changing literary tastes and ambitions. While regional literature offered an escape from the complexities and anxieties of modern life with nostalgic depictions of a simpler world in rural America, there was also a great demand for realistic accounts of life in the industrial age: literature, according to the influential novelist and editor William Dean Howells, should depict “life as it really is,” but Howells’s definition of “the real” was called into question by “naturalist” writers. In this course we will be reading some of the classics of the age of literary realism and naturalism, as well as works by women, African American, and immigrant writers whose voices challenged some of the assumptions and conventions of the dominant literary scene.

Teaching method

Two hour seminar per week.

Course objectives

This course aims to give a survey of American literature in the context of intellectual, cultural, social and political developments in American society between the end of the Civil War to the end of WWI. Tracing the emergence of literary realism and naturalism and the transition toward modernism, this course aims to give insight into cultural debates surrounding three main themes: 1. slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction; 2. nation and region, gender and ethnicity; and 3. immigration, the city, and the American Dream.

Required reading

  • Norton Anthology of American Literature, 7th ed. vol. C.

  • Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (Penguin)

  • Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (Penguin).

  • Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (Penguin).

Test method

Essay 2000 words (50 %) and written exam (50 %).

Time table

The timetable will be available from June 1st on the Internet.


English Department, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102c. Phone: 071 527 2144, or by mail:


Students can register through U-twist between 1 November and 15 December. After 15 December students can only register through the Departmental Office.


A Blackboard site will be made available, to which all students should sign up before the beginning of the semester.


This course is obligatory for students who are taking a minor in American Studies.