English 573: Scientific Americans: Theories of Science in American Literature, 1880-1940.
This seminar explores the ways in which American authors from 1880-1940 incorporated the scientific theories of their times into novels, short stories, and nonfiction journalism. In a post-bellum, post-Darwinian, industrialized, and diverse nation increasingly bent on fulfilling its imperial aspirations and its dreams of global prominence, Americans sought to ground their sense of the country’s exceptional destiny less in John Winthrop’s religious and political vision of a “city upon a hill” than in the positivistic promises of scientific empiricism. Because it fit well with contemporary beliefs about the independent spirit, practical nature, and inventiveness of Americans, the paradigm of applied science promised to provide solutions both for real problems that could be solved, such as the contamination in packing plants exposed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and for socially constructed problems that reflected the anxieties of the time, as in novels promoting so-called “racial science,” eugenics, and theories of criminality and degeneration. To read these works today is to see theories lacking a valid empirical basis, such as those of racial hierarchies, juxtaposed with scientifically verifiable theories: for example, Pudd’nhead Wilson treats palmistry and the then-new science of fingerprinting as equally valid predictors of identity.
In this seminar, we will read primary texts in the framework of the scientific discourses that produced them. The course is divided into five areas in which theories of science, including those of emerging social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology, informed fiction: (1) Medicine, Sexuality, Psychology, and Health; (2) Race, Ethnicity, and Identity; (3) Technology and Communication; (4) Evolution, Eugenics, Criminality, and Addiction; and (5) Social Experiments: Utopian Freedom and Industrial Regimentation.
In addition to Sinclair and Twain, the tentative list of readings includes primary texts by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Oliver Wendell Holmes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Harold Frederic, Jack London, W. E. B. DuBois, Edith Wharton, Angelina Weld Grimké, Theodore Dreiser, and W. D. Howells. Theoretical and critical texts will include work by Laura Dassow Walls, Priscilla Wald, Laura Otis, Jane Thrailkill, Lisa Gitelman, Susan Mizruchi, Cynthia Davis, and Brad Evans, among others. We will also read student-selected texts from periodicals of the era that will help to place the fictional presentations of science in perspective.
Assignments are all geared toward eventual presentation or publication, and they will probably include the following: an oral presentation; minor presentations of critical material; a conference-length paper; an article-length paper (that may be on the same subject); a conference abstract based on the longer paper; and, for our “in-class conference” at the end, an oral response to another person’s paper.