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Reading: Essentially the Greatest Poem: Teaching New Ways of Reading American Literature

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Essentially the Greatest Poem: Teaching New Ways of Reading American Literature

Author:

Cassandra Falke

UiT-The Arctic University of Norway, NO
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Abstract

This essay arose from a debate held at the 2018 American Studies Association of Norway (ASANOR) about the value of teaching American Literature and Culture survey courses at Norwegian universities. My role, as ASANOR’s president, was to facilitate the debate and offer a response. In the extended version of that response published here, I accept the critique of national survey courses as tending toward exceptionalism and nationalist interpretations of transnational political and aesthetic flows, but in the end advocate for American survey courses. I shift the focus from whether these courses should be taught to how. Taking up Walt Whitman’s description of America as ‘essentially the greatest poem’, I propose that survey classes can ‘read’ that poem in a way that acknowledges America’s complexity and the woeful inconsistencies between its history and its national ideal, while still finding beauty and value in that ideal. The first half of the paper historicizes the American literature survey in Norway in reference to international and national developments in the field of American Studies. The second half elaborates ways of teaching American Literature surveys that foreground students’ and professors’ ‘horizons of expectation’ for American literature and culture, assessing which of those come from American literary and cultural documents and which come from the uses to which the idea of America is put in the lives we live here and now.

How to Cite: Falke, C., 2021. Essentially the Greatest Poem: Teaching New Ways of Reading American Literature. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 20(2), pp.283–301.
Published on 18 Oct 2021.

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