The American Dream: Visions and Subversions in American Literature

What is “The American Dream”? Is it an ideal, a shared cultural goal, a perennial challenge? A riddle, a chimera? How does the American Dream manifest itself in individual works of art?

“The American Dream: Visions and Subversions” will explore, primarily in American literature, themes of individual and cultural identity from 19th century texts (by Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin) through 20th century texts (by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor) and 21st century fiction (by Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Ha Jin among others).

Supplementary texts may include William James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience,” de Tocqueville ‘s “Democracy in America,” and selected memoirs (by Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Edmund White, Anthony Bourdain, Steve Martin) as well as selected art, photography, drama, and films.

Students will write 1-2 page papers each week on assigned topics, present one half-hour analysis and discussion of a text or art-work to the class, and write one major paper of 12-15 pages due at the end of the course. Also due at the end of the course will be a portfolio, or facsimile of a book, containing all of your work for the semester as well as a cover, cover art and design, table of contents, and back cover. (Careful instruction will be given on the creation of this “book.”)

Students will be encouraged to pursue individual projects that might involve making contact with/interviewing appropriate contemporary writers or artists.

Application required as a Freshman Seminar. View details at




Wednesdays, 1:30-4:20 PM


Joyce Carol Oates