American Literature

Fall 2010

Essay 1


Write a fully developed essay of 3 ½ - 4 pages in support of a clearly stated argumentative thesis. You must support your thesis with evidence from the primary text, including direct quotations in your essay where necessary and appropriate. These must be cited correctly using MLA format for parenthetical page citation. You will need to prepare a works cited page, again according to MLA format, for the end of the essay. For reference, go to Tab 6 in A Writer’s Resource.


Topic Guidelines:


1)      In The Stories We Live By, Dan McAdams defines personal myths as involving “an imaginative reconstruction of the past in light of an envisioned future.” They are subjective creations—illusions in a sense, whether they be positive or negative … [showing] a personal predilection for viewing the world” and the self within that world (53). Hence, he says, “A personal myth delineates an identity, illuminating the values of an individual life. The personal myth is not a legend or fairy tale, but a sacred story that embodies a personal truth” and which reflects “patterns of desire” not always conscious to the writer (34, 36). What type of personal mythology does Franklin fashion in The Autobiography (think, in other words, of what “story” Franklin tells about his self)? What personal truth or truths, or “patterns of desire,” does his narrative embody? Where do we see evidence of these borne out in the text? What types of recurring images, motives, or tropes does Franklin draw upon to animate his persona myth? You may even want to consider why, finally, his personal myth has become so “common” to our cultural and national sensibility—what does his story say about us (who we think we are, who we want to be)?


2)      In “’Boats Against the Current: Mortality and the Myth of Renewal in The Great Gatsby,” Jeffery Steinbrink suggests Fitzgerald’s novel is about “the myth of regeneration”—each character is drawn in two different directions, he says: “toward the naïve hope that the best of life is yet to come, and toward the realization that such circumstances as give life meaning lie buried in an irrecoverable past.” In your own analysis, consider the implications and relevance of Steinbrink’s thesis. How are the motifs of renewal and regeneration played out in the text (some examples: in the characters and their pursuits, the significance of setting, symbolism—i.e., the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock—the clock motif, etc.)? In what ways do the characters attempt to retrieve a lost past, and how does this search for meaning and lost significance affect them? What does the lost past embody to these characters—to America? What things in the novel—according to Fitzgerald—are “unattainable,” and why?


3)      Develop an analysis of a character or characters in The Great Gatsby. Consider these questions: What values do these characters embody? What is the narrator’s attitude toward the character/s, or, how is/are the character/s portrayed (as tragic, victim, antagonist, sympathetic)? Is there a larger critique aimed at the American society that is embodied in the character (for example, several characters arguably embody aspects of the Franklinian dream—is Fitzgerald harsh in his depiction of them, and why)?


4)      Create an argument for the significance of a character or characters (do not, however, choose more than two); setting and space; film techniques; or a sign (or a relational field of signs) presented in Valerie Faris’s and Jonathan Dayton’s film, Little Miss Sunshine. Your discussion of this element(s) should tie into a critical-interpretive discussion of the element in relationship to one of the larger (macro) themes presented in the film, particularly in connection to other texts we have studied this semester. How, for example, does the film take issue with the philosophical and ideological underpinnings Franklin’s secular humanism (its confidence in the perfectibility of a human being, faith in natural goodness, and emphasis on man as a free, self-designating agent)? In what ways is the film a “counter-argument” to the American dream depicted in Franklin’s Autobiography? What does the film suggest about the American self in relation to his or her world—how does this “story” or argument compare/contrast with Franklin?


This topic asks you to perform a close reading of your chosen scene, with particular attention to the ways in which meaning is constructed vis-à-vis technical and literary elements: lighting, mise-en-scene, camera shots, editing techniques, imagery, metaphors, etc. Your thesis must posit an argument about how the film offers competing and contrasting views of the American experience. Remember to move beyond observing the “what” of the text—you will use elements of plot and observation to illustrate your points; but always follow through by offering interpretations of meaning and drawing meaningful conclusions (the “so what”).


Assessment: All out-of-class responses will be graded according to the recommended rubric: click here. There are a number of different ways to approach this writing task; however, it is very important that your essay establishes and writes in support of a specific thesis (an argument or idea about the work). In other words, your essay must do more than simply summarize or paraphrase a work. Your thesis should be more (substantially more) than simply stating whether or not you like or dislike, agree or disagree with what the author says. Use specific references to and/or examples (quotations) from the work to support your thesis. Your analysis should focus on one literary work; however, you can make brief comparisons to another work (or works) we have read so far in this class in order to clarify specific points of meaning. I will assess your essay based on the following: 1) the qualitative strength of your thesis; 2) your ability to convincingly support your thesis with specific textual and cultural references; 3) the organization of your paper; 4) college-level expectations for grammar, editing, and style.


Note: This is not a research paper, so you do not need to consult or include secondary sources.


Format: Your response essay must conform to MLA documentation style. This includes the format of the first page as well as the format of all quotations and the citation of all primary sources (the literary work you are analyzing).



As you think these ideas through, feel free to discuss any of your thoughts, opinions, and questions with me.