Set in a region with a rich nineteenth-century history of social reform and literary production, Writing and Democracy in Western New York brings a fresh approach to central texts of American democracy. In this so-called "burned-over district," religious innovations -- revivalism, Mormonism, spiritualism -- presented one face of a broad spirit of change extending to diverse social movements including abolitionism, temperance, utopian living, and women's rights. This experimental spirit arose in tandem with the nation's first major infrastructure project, the Erie Canal. It also reflected the effects of the durable Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) presence, a presence that has in recent years become increasingly visible. This distinctive mix of historical circumstances and cultural conditions lends itself to situated readings highlighting the locale. Together we will consider familiar works by Alexis de Tocqueville, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, James Fenimore Cooper, and Frederick Douglass in a regional context involving works by such lesser-known writers as Harriet Jacobs, Albion Tourgée, Lucy Colman, and Harold Frederic. In addition to participating in classroom sessions focused on literary, political, and historical texts, you will have the opportunity to explore the rich archives of Cornell University and visit nearby Auburn and Seneca Falls, New York.

The seminar will be jointly led by Shirley Samuels (Cornell University) and Sandra M. Gustafson (University of Notre Dame), who specialize in early American literature and share a deep interest in western New York. Visiting instructors Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (University at Buffalo) and Jason Frank (Cornell University) will share their expertise. The seminar presents a range of opportunities for scholarly research. Participants will be able to confer about organizing conference panels and publishing the products of their research. The seminar will also focus on pedagogical questions, including how to incorporate non-canonical writings into courses, and how to address central texts of American democracy with young people in a manner that is inclusive and respectful of different points of view.

The two-week seminar will be held June 16-28, 2019.


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Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this seminar do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

View of the Erie Canal by John William Hill (1829)