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Artifacts and Fiction - Workshop in American Literature
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Effective Close Reading
Follow these steps for an effective close reading:
  1. Read through the text (or a section of it) in order to get an overall sense of the piece.

  2. Slowly read through the piece again, paying close attention to the language. Don't think about what is being said for a moment; rather, concentrate on how it is being said. Look at the following aspects of style:
    • Sentence structure: Is it past or present tense, or a combination of the two?

    • Sentence length: Does the author use short or long sentences? (Long and complex or short and concise?)

    • Detail: How much detail is given? How much is withheld? What are some adjectives or descriptive phrases used?

    • Figurative language: Does the author use metaphors, similes, and personification in order to further illustrate and emphasize his/her message?

    • Diction: What choices of wording/phrasing does the author use? Speculate on why he/she does this.

    • Punctuation: Look closely at the commas, periods, and semicolons in the sentences. Is there a purpose behind their use?

    • Order: Underline sentences or phrases that are interestingly ordered. Focus on just one specific paragraph and discuss what the text itself is doing and how the writer achieves this effect.

  3. Lastly, tie the specific stylistic devices back to the content of the piece. Why does the author use the word choices he/she does in a given line? (i.e., why would the writer use the adjectives "rough, man-working hands" rather than "callused hands"?) Essentially, you are discussing how an author's style affects the message he/she is trying to convey in writing.


Abolition - The movement to end slavery in the United States. Calls for abolition emerged from Quaker activists like John Woolman during the early eighteenth century and from proponents of natural rights during the American Revolution. However, abolitionism did not become an important political force in America until the early to mid-nineteenth century.

Ballad - A narrative poem—often of folk origin and intended to be sung—which consists of simple stanzas and usually includes a refrain.

Borderlands - The regions on either side of a national boundary, characterized by cultural interactions that foster creativity and innovation. Because the geographic placement of a national border is always arbitrary and artificial, the zones on either side of the border contradict the notion that people and cultures can be kept separate or distinct from one another. Instead, borderlands are permeable places where traditions interconnect and cultures cross-pollinate. These spaces may be marked by conflict, violence, and hatred, but they can also produce cooperation, innovation, and hybridity.

Captivity narrative - A uniquely American literary genre, the captivity narrative recounts the experience of a white European (or, later, an American) during his or—more often—her captivity and eventual release from hostile enemy captors (generally Native Americans). Enormously popular since their inception in the seventeenth century, captivity narratives influenced the development of both autobiographical writings and the novel in America.

Chicano/Chicana - Men and women of Mexican American descent living in the United States. After the United States took possession of California, Texas, and other portions of the Southwest through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, Mexicans living in the region were deprived of their property and civil rights. In the late twentieth century, activists in the Chicano movement began to fight against this kind of discrimination. Part of their protest involved reclaiming and celebrating their unique history, language, and mixed Mexican and American heritage.

Contact zone - Scholar Mary Louise Pratt has coined the term "contact zone" to describe the space of meeting between two cultures that were previously separate, both geographically and historically. As Pratt puts it, a contact zone is an area in which previously separated peoples "come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict." Contact zones in the New World were usually characterized by Europeans asserting dominance over native peoples. But contact is never a one-way phenomenon. The interactive, improvisational nature of contact necessarily creates subjects who become interrelated within a mutually constituted experience.

Copley, John Singleton (1738-1815) - The most famous colonial American artist, John Singleton Copley was the first painter from the colonies to gain fame in European circles. His detailed and probing portraits of Bostonians capture a sense of emotional immediacy that resonated with later romantic painters. Influenced by Copley, the romantics strived to capture the transcendental experience of the sublime.

Ekphrasis - The verbal description of a work of fine art, usually a painting, photograph, or sculpture, but sometimes an urn, tapestry, or quilt. Ekphrasis attempts to bridge the gap between the verbal and visual worlds.

Formal analysis - The study of a work of art with reference to its form rather than content or context. According to this point of view, the most important thing about a work of art is how it is organized according to design principles.

Frontier - Traditionally, Americans have used this term to describe the unexplored or contested land west of the eastern settlements on the Atlantic coast. Scholars have said the term "blurs the facts of conquest" and does not take into account the many other peoples who were displaced—sometimes violently—to make way for U.S. expansion.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 - The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made even the free territory of the northern states unsafe for escaped slaves; legally, northerners could not aid or harbor escaped fugitives. Slaves could be captured and returned to the South at any time, without benefit of trial. Under the act, slave catchers collected rewards for sending slaves to the South—they sometimes even seized free blacks and sold them into slavery.

Gentrification - The restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property for sale or rental to middle-class or affluent people. Gentrification often results in the disruption of existing communities and the displacement of lower-income people.

Goodwife - The respectful term for a married woman in the Puritan community, sometimes shortened to "Goody," as in Hawthorne's story Young Goodman Brown (the male equivalent is Goodman). In this story, Goodman encounters a character referred to as "Goody Cloyse."

Gynecocratic - Governed by women, as opposed to patriarchal (governed by men). Native American communities such as the Pueblo were matrilineal (traced their descent through the maternal line) and/or matrifocal (female-centered).

Hogan - A one-room Navajo structure. Traditionally built with the entrance facing east, hogans were used as dwellings or for ceremonial purposes. Early hogans were made of earth-covered poles; later models were often built of logs, stones, and other natural materials.

Hóhós - A Navajo term meaning holiness, harmony, or beauty. This term is used to describe Navajo art, song, and ritual that seeks balance and harmony.

Iconography - Literally means "the story of the icon." Iconography refers to the study of any subject represented in the visual arts, the conventions governing a subject's representations, and the symbolic significance of the resulting works of art.

Indian Removal Act of 1830 - In 1830, the United States Congress, with the support of President Andrew Jackson, attempted to legislate a permanent solution to their land disputes with eastern Native American tribes by passing the Indian Removal Act. Passed by a narrow margin, the Act stipulated that the government could forcibly relocate Native Americans living within their traditional lands in eastern states to areas west of the Mississippi designated as "Indian Territory" (much of this land was in present-day Oklahoma). With this stroke, the federal government sanctioned the racist view that Native Americans had no valid claims to their homelands and should be moved westward to make way for white settlers and white culture. The Indian Removal Act enabled the tragic "Trail of Tears" migration, in which a third of the Cherokee population died.

Jeremiad - A form of writing usually associated with second-generation Puritan sermons but which is also relevant to many other kinds of Puritan writing. (Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative is often cited as an example of a jeremiad.) Drawing from the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Isaiah, jeremiads lament the spiritual and moral decline of a community; they interpret recent misfortunes as God's just punishment for that decline. Paradoxically, jeremiads bemoan their communities' falls from grace while reading the resulting misfortunes and punishments as proofs of God's love-and of the group's status as His "chosen people." According to jeremiad logic, God would not bother chastising or testing people he did not view as special or important to his divine plan.

La Llorona - Translated as "The Weeping Woman," La Llorona began as an oral Mestizo legend about a ghostly woman heard wailing for her lost children. In some versions of the story, La Llorona is doomed to wander and weep to expiate her guilt for murdering her own children. The motivations for the murders include depression or anger at being abandoned by the children's father (who is sometimes portrayed as an Anglo); the need to conceal an illegitimate birth; or a selfish rejection of motherhood. In other versions, La Llorona is portrayed as a loving mother who loses her children to a tragic accident or to foul play. She is almost always represented as wandering near lakes and rivers, since in most versions of the myth her children died by drowning. At its most basic level, the story serves as a cautionary tale to keep young children away from dangerous bodies of water. At the same time, however, it constructs an archetype of failed motherhood and tragic femininity.

Manifest Destiny - The belief that American control of the land that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific was inevitable and divinely sanctioned. Because of this culturally arrogant conviction, American policy makers had few scruples about displacing Native Americans, Mexicans, and other groups inhabiting the land from the Great Plains to California.

Mestizo/mestiza - Men and women of mixed Indian, European, and African heritage. The mestizo identity has gained prominence in the American southwest; there, mestizos have proudly reclaimed their Native American heritage, an element of identity largely unacknowledged by the Chicano movement. Mestizo identity is characterized by plurality and inclusiveness.

Myth - A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes. A myth serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people; it explains aspects of the natural world or delineates the psychology, customs, or ideals of a society.

Navajo house blessing ceremony - A ritual based on the Navajo creation story: First Man and First Woman come up to the surface of the earth, the fifth world, from the underworld to create a young man and woman. This young couple was made from "the four directions, from the waters, mountains, plants-in fact from the cosmos" (McAllester 20). The couple was then told by First Man that they were to be the source of all life, but that they would never be seen on earth again. He gathered them up in his medicine bundle, concealing them forever within the first hogan, or traditional Navajo dwelling. This structure was then blessed. First Man taught the earth surface people—the ones who would inhabit the earth—that each new hogan must be blessed.

Oral tradition - The spoken relation and preservation of a people's cultural history and ancestry from one generation to the next. A storyteller is often responsible for relating the history in narrative form.

Politics - The art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity such as a nation. Also the administration and control of government's internal and external affairs.

Puritan Covenant - According to Volume A of the Norton Anthology, Puritans did indeed hold that God had chosen, before their birth, those whom he wished to save; but it does not follow that Puritans considered most of us to be born damned. Puritans argued that Adam broke the "Covenant of Works" (the promise God made to Adam that he was immortal and could live in Paradise forever as long as he obeyed God's commandments) when he disobeyed and ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thereby bringing sin and death into the world. Their central doctrine, however, was the new "Covenant of Grace," a binding agreement that Christ made with all people who believed in him and that he sealed with his Crucifixion, promising them eternal life. Puritans thus addressed themselves not to the hopelessly unregenerate but to the indifferent, and they addressed the heart more often than the mind, always distinguishing between "historical" or rational understanding and heartfelt saving faith.

Slave narrative - A popular autobiographical genre in which escaped slaves recount their literal and emotional journeys from slavery to freedom, often emphasizing literacy and resistance to oppression. Authors of slave narratives were primarily concerned with gaining adherents to the abolitionist cause; by convincing white readers of the author's intelligence and humanity, the narrative implied the intelligence and humanity of all enslaved African Americans. The authors usually provided details of the degradations and abuses they suffered as slaves, although these sufferings encompass very different experiences for each writer.

Sorrow songs - Also called "spirituals," sorrow songs were developed within African American slave culture. The songs were meant to ease the burden of labor, articulate communal values, and provide an outlet for meaningful self-expression. Drawing on both African musical styles and western European sources, sorrow songs are characterized by group authorship and improvisation.

Typology - A Puritan method of reading scripture and also using it to understand the significance of historical and current events. In its strictest sense, typology refers to the practice of explicating signs in the Old Testament as foreshadowing events, personages, ceremonies, and objects in the New Testament. According to typological logic, Old Testament signs, or "types," prefigure their fulfillment or "antetype" in Christ. Applied more broadly, typology enabled Puritans to read biblical types as forecasting not just the events of the New Testament but also their own historical situation and experiences. Individual Puritans could make sense of their own spiritual struggles and achievements by identifying with biblical personages like Adam, Noah, or Job. But this broad understanding of typology was not restricted to individual typing; the Puritans also interpreted their group identity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, identifying their community as the "New Israel."

Underground Railroad - A system of concealed trails, hiding places, safe houses, and friendly supporters, the Underground Railroad was developed by abolitionists, ex-slaves, and slaves to spirit fugitives to freedom, often in Canada. "Station masters" took enormous personal risks since providing aid to fugitive slaves was illegal. A few brave ex-slaves like Harriet Tubman even ventured back into slave states to assist runaways. Tubman made at least 19 trips to the South to help organize escapes, reportedly using coded slave songs to transmit messages to slaves who planned to run.

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