English - Free topic 3: Literature Outside and Beyond the American Canon and What Was/Is African American Literature

Course content

Literature Outside and Beyond the American Canon (Inge Birgitte Siegumfeldt)

What is a canon and what can it tell us about the culture that fostered it? By what criteria are texts included and excluded? Can we still talk about a homogeneous American canon in the twenty-first century?

We will begin by discussing standard notions of the American canon with a focus on different theories of canonization and the ways in which criteria for inclusion (and exclusion) have changed in the course of the twentieth century. In this course, you will read a selection of great American texts that do not conform to the conventions of the cultural tradition either by virtue of deliberately transgressing generic boundaries or by virtue of belonging to modes of writing (determined by ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality etc.) traditionally classified as peripheral to the canon.


What Was/Is African American Literature (Martyn Bone)

Kenneth Warren’s book, What Was African American Literature? (2011), has attracted considerable attention (and no little controversy) for suggesting that if “African American literature” emerged as a response to the structures and ideology of a racist U.S. society, this category of writing may now be confined to the past. In this course, we will use Warren’s argument as a starting point for a discussion of the formation, revision, diversification, and possible disintegration of “African American literature.” We will read a range of both canonical and non-canonical African American literary texts from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. The themes we will consider and discuss may include:

  • The legacies of slavery in definitions of African American literature, from the slave narrative to the “neo-slave narrative”
  • White U.S. racism and black writers’ response to racism
  • Debates over the role of the U.S. South and the black southern “folk” in defining the African American experience and “authentic blackness”
  • The benefits to and problems with categorizing and periodizing African American literature: i.e., the Harlem Renaissance, African American women’s writing
  • The role and representation of mixed racial/biracial identity in African American life and literature, and how black authors have written about white characters
  • How ideas of transnationalism, diaspora, Pan-Africanism, and the Black Atlantic have challenged “African American exceptionalism” (Paul Gilroy) and complicated definitions of “African American literature” as confined within the U.S. nation state
  • How questions of genre (fiction, short stories, slave and neo-slave narratives, autobiographies, poetry, plays, essays, experimental writing) and publication form have shaped definitions of African American literature, in terms of what has been included and excluded

Classes, with particular emphasis on reading primary and secondary texts, oral discussion and developing proficiency in English.

Please note that this module will run back-to-back with ‘Literature Outside and Beyond the American Canon’ in the first half of the semester and ‘What Was/Is African American Literature’ in the last half.

Literature Outside and Beyond the American Canon

Provisional reading list includes critical texts by such theorists as Harold Bloom, Sandra M. Gilbert, Donna Haraway, Lorna Sage and Alexa Weik von Mossner and Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time, 1925, Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, 1973, Toni Morrison's Beloved, 1987.


What Was/Is African American Literature

Primary texts may include a selection from the following (NB: final selection and book order to be confirmed via Absalon course room)

  • W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
  • Nella Larsen, Quicksand
  • Jeam Toomer, Cane
  • Richard Wright, Black Boy
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee
  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • John Oliver Killens, Youngblood
  • James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
  • LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Slave Ship
  • Toni Morrison, Tar Baby
  • Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

This course only leads to exams Free Topic 1, Free Topic 2 and Free Topic 3.

Type of assessment
Portfolio, A joint portfolio uploaded in digital exam: Deadline January 8th 2020
Two essays (5-6 pages) for ‘Literature Outside and Beyond the American Canon’ to be submitted around weeks 40 and 44 (NB: dates to be confirmed). Each will make up 25% of the final grade.
Two essays (5-6 pages) for ‘What Was/Is African American Literature?’ to be submitted around weeks 47 and week 50 (NB: dates to be confirmed). Each essay will make up 25% of the final grade.
Criteria for exam assessment

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Preparation
  • 353,5
  • Class Instruction
  • 56
  • English
  • 409,5