American Literature

Fall 2011

Essay 2


Your essay should be 3 ½ - 4 pages, typed, double spaced, in 12 point Times New Roman font, with 1-inch margins. You should follow MLA guidelines, format citations properly, and include a works cited. For reference, go to Tab 6 in A Writer’s Resource. The essay must be on paper (not submitted by e-mail). Here is a link to the grading rubric:

The key here is argument. You must form a clear and specific argumentative position in this essay. 

You must also use direct support (this included quotations and plot events) from the texts to delineate and frame your reasoning. In each body paragraph, draw upon the M.E.A.L. plan as a model for paragraph construction. Be logical and reasonable in supporting your position.


Choose ONE of the following topics for your last essay. Please do not consult secondary sources.

1.       Select any text from the media—perhaps an advertisement in a magazine, a commercial, or even a song—for the purpose of analyzing and explicating how it draws upon Emerson’s ideas (those laid out in the excerpt from “Self-Reliance”) to communicate its message. Keep in mind that this topic calls for a close reading of the text. Consider 1) how the text promotes an Emersonian view of the individual (whether through its lyrics, the words, the people, colors, and images associated with the ad or picture, etc. –this will require you to describe and explicate the ad or image), and 2) to what effect (this is the “so what” question that your thesis should address: why, specifically, does the text promote, extol, or imbibe Emersonian themes, ideals, arguments, rhetoric?). In order to address this question, you will have to consider the text’s “argument,” theme or purpose, as well as its intended audience. How does the text draw upon Emersonian appeals to attract or draw an audience and frame its argument?

This assignment asks that you take an intertextual approach—which sees any text as infused with echoes, repetitions, language, and transformations of other texts. The assumption behind your paper is that Emerson’s ideas—his romantic celebration of selfhood and nature as the sanctum as non-artificiality, his rugged philosophy of individualism and anti-institutionalism—still impact and influence our thinking today. Throughout your paper, consider why these ideals still influence us—what about his ideas attract audiences today?—and why marketers draw upon these seductive ideals to sell a product.


2.       Formulate an argument about a theme or motif from Herzog’s documentary, “Grizzly Man.” How does the work communicate its underlying arguments, themes, tropes, messages? What does the work suggest about the story we want—perhaps need—to live by?

For example, a recurrent motif in the film is the dream of renewal and regeneration. Both in its imagery and in its characterizations, the film speaks to the basic human desire to reinvent oneself and make oneself anew. Treadwell, notes Herzog, wants to be “one with the bears.” He changes his name and even, earlier in his life, feigns an Australian accent to embody an alternate persona. The motif of transformation is a prominent story in American literature, rooted in such early texts as Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography (who practically invented and publicized the concept of the self-made man) and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In these texts, westward expansion epitomizes the dream of renewal—the physical landscape of the west is synonymous with the idea of creating one’s own code and living by it (consider, for examples, figures like John Wayne and the Marlboro Man—they appeal to us precisely because they epitomize unfettered masculine autonomy, radical independence). Treadwell seems to embody the rugged mystique of “the cowboy” (even though his persona is fraught with tensions and underlying contradictions); at times he epitomizes one who lives in the wild to recapture the essence of manhood and ultimate freedom. What does Herzog suggest, however, about the dream of renewal—is it really possible? What argument(s) does his documentary assert about the romantic possibility of locating a physical utopia where one can claim freedom, where one can become “one” with nature and the bears?

However you approach this writing assignment, your task is to explicate the film closely, with particular attention to the ways in which meaning is constructed vis-à-vis language and technical / literary elements: lighting, mise-en-scene, camera shots, editing techniques, imagery, metaphors, etc. Your thesis must posit an argument. 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”).

3.       Choose one character from Toni Morrison’s Beloved and analyze how he or she may be read in contradictory ways. For example, how (and to what effect, importantly) does the character defy straightforward characterization as a hero, oppressor, victim, or villain? If you wish, you may compare and contrast two characters.


4.       Analyze the significance of Beloved’s transitions from the narrative voice of one character to the narrative voice of another and back. For example, consider the different “readings” of Beloved’s actual death: Morrison shifts from Schoolteacher’s perspective, to the nephew’s perspective, to Sethe’s perspective. To what effect?


5.       This topic asks you to think about how ethnic and racial groups are imagined, constructed, identified, and represented in one of the texts: Huckleberry Finn or Beloved. As with gender, it’s all about representation: How are people of color represented? Any one of the following questions would provide the basis for an essay:[1]

·         How are people of color represented or portrayed? What values, attitudes, attributes, or characteristics are attributed to specific forms of ethnicity?

·         What function or role do people of color have in the narrative?

·         What racial/ethnic stereotypes are reinforced or debunked? (Be aware of “surface subversion” or texts that seem to challenge traditional representations of race but reinforce them in new ways.)

·         How does ethnicity intersect with gender, class, and other social categories?

·         How do form and function intersect? (i.e. What Toni Morrison says intersects with how she says it.)