Major Works in American Literature

House of Mirth Poster

The initial reception of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905) was mixed. Hailed as a masterpiece by New York and Boston critics, the novel was read as emblematic of a larger threat to Christianity by critics in southern cities like Charleston and Biloxi.

When is a work of literature a major work? 

Does the adjective used here—“major”—connote popularity? And, if so, popularity among whom? The original readers? Contemporary readers? Scholars? Critics? Or is “major” an aesthetic category? Are these the “best” works of literature?

This course will suggest that “major” works are produced historically, and that classic (or “major”) works of literature are chosen by communities of readers operating at the intersection of politics, economics, aesthetics, and social values. Our goal will be to interrogate the largely invisible agendas at play in deciding which books are important.

Ultimately, I will ask each student to weigh in. Students will:

1.) Choose one of the texts from our syllabus.

2.) Begin by writing a short reception history of the text, examining primary sources to discover whether, how, and among whom it became popular.

3.) Then, using this research, students will write a final essay. This essay will bring together original research into primary sources, a close engagement with scholarly sources, and a formal examination of the literary text in question.

Students will meet with me for extensive one-on-one feedback at each stage of this semester-long project.