Final Essay

The Background

Whew! You made it. To date, you have:

1. Read an important literary text and discussed it with me and with the rest of the class

2. Researched its historical reception, developing a theory about how readers in the past viewed the text

3. Researched its treatment by scholars over the past ten to thirty years, developing a theory about the text’s scholarly reception

First, take a step back to recognize how impressive this is. You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. This research is the real deal.

Now, your task is to bring all of this material together. I’d like to start with a little brainstorming.


Step One

Essentially, you have three ways of reading available to you:

1. The perspective of historical readers

2. The perspective of contemporary scholars

3. Your own perspective

These almost certainly will not match. Moreover, these perspectives will probably point to different ways of asking questions about literature. In other words, different readers are often asking different questions about texts as much as they’re offering different answers.

Your first task, then, is chart the intellectual landscape. Who agrees or disagrees, about what do they agree or disagree, and why?

  • Perhaps one group of scholars recognizes something in the historical record that the others have missed?
  • Or, perhaps, the historical record reveals something that all of the scholars have missed?
  • Or, perhaps, the historical record reveals that readers at the time of the text’s first publication could not appreciate what we now intuitively appreciate.
  • Or maybe you’ve noticed an entirely different relationship between the different groups of readers.

The point is that you formulate a theory about the relationship between these perspectives. Write this theory down, explaining its component parts. Be sure to write as if to a reader who is unfamiliar with your project.


Step Two

Now, you can begin writing your essay.

Begin with your theory. This will form the core of your introduction. Then, begin drafting. Remember here that an academic essay typically answers three questions.

Methods: How will you be approaching the intellectual task of the essay?

1.) First, what scholars have been useful, not useful, or useful but limited in helping you to develop your thinking? You should quote these scholars, explain their methods and conclusions, and respond

2.) Second, what is your process for examining the historical archive and the literary text? What are the limitations of this approach? What are its uses? A fair and frank assessment of the uses and limitations of your methodology is a clear sign of serious scholarship.

Readings: Now, go about the task of “reading” and analyzing your archive.

1.) What elements of your primary, literary text does the reader need to see? Quote these elements, explain what the reader should note, and explain why this matters. You have already done some of this work in class, and you should feel free to borrow useful material from your response essays.

2.) Also, what elements of the historical archive does your reader need to see? Quote these elements—providing the “who, what, when, and where” context—and explain how these historical documents relate to your primary text.

Consequences: If the reader subscribes to your reading of the scholarly, archival, and primary sources, what then? How should she think differently about:

1.) This literary text and its reception, in particular?

2.) And the practice of reading literature from the past, more broadly?


These are broad guidelines, and individual projects will develop differently. It is important that you meet with me to discuss the direction your essay is taking.

Good luck!