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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
James Fenimore Cooper, John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird), Walt Whitman

Who's Interviewed:
Sherman Alexie, author and filmmaker; Blake Almendinger, professor of English (University of California, Los Angeles); Ramon Saldivar, professor of American literature (Stanford University); April Selley, associate professor of English (College of Saint Rose); Richard Slotkin, professor of American studies (Wesleyan University)

Points Covered:
• Introduction to nineteenth-century American ideas about expansion, immigration, and the movement west. Westward expansion created new identities and conflicts over who and what was American. Writers responded by creating masculine heroes who both challenged and celebrated the idea of the "frontier."

• James Fenimore Cooper invented the language for subsequent literature about American expansion with his Leather-Stocking Tales, which focus on the adventures of Natty Bumppo. A man living on the border between "wilderness" and "civilization" and between Native American and European culture, Natty challenges notions about American identity. Cooper's adoption of feminine imagery to describe the American landscape and his romantic yet ultimately dismissive view of Native Americans problematizes the role of gender and race in the construction of American identity.

• John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee journalist, moved racial minorities from the sidelines of American literature into the spotlight with his creation of Joaquin Murieta, a Mexican outlaw who heroically fights the atrocities and injustices perpetrated by white American invaders in California. Ridge's own divided ethnicity (he had both European and Cherokee heritage) may have influenced his exploration of racial tensions in his novel.

• Walt Whitman was more celebratory of American expansion than either Cooper or Ridge, but also more inclusive and tolerant of diversity. Heeding Emerson's call for a national poet and a "true American voice," Whitman wanted his epic poetry collection Leaves of Grass to express the plurality of voices that constitute America. His innovative style and development of free verse was foundational for modern American poetry.

• These authors constructed ideals of American masculinity and American expansion that are marked by tensions and contradictions. Celebrating Manifest Destiny and industrialization while also writing nostalgically about the people and cultures destroyed by American expansion, they created a complex portrait of the American frontier and the American hero that continues to shape popular culture in this country.

• Preview the video: In the nineteenth century, the United States acquired vast new territories as a result of exploration, wars, treaties, and land purchases. As people of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds began moving into these territories, tensions developed over who and what should be considered "American." Writers responded by creating a literature centered on masculine heroes who both celebrate and question the ideals of American expansion. James Fenimore Cooper wrote the Leather-Stocking Tales, a series of five historical novels about the adventures of Natty Bumppo. A man who lives on the border between Native American and white culture, Natty articulates tensions between "civilization" and "nature." John Rollin Ridge voiced his outrage at the atrocities committed by white Americans in California with his tale of the Mexican outlaw hero Joaquin Murieta. More sanguine about expansion, Walt Whitman glorified the vastness of America's territories while adopting a tolerant, inclusive attitude toward all of its diverse inhabitants. All of these writers created innovative literary styles and enduring themes that continue to influence American ideas about land and about masculinity.

• What to think about while watching: How do these authors both celebrate and challenge nineteenth-century American expansionist goals? What racial and ethnic groups inhabited the American West? How did racial tensions shape the American movement west? How do the writers and texts explored in the video create new American heroes and new ideals of masculinity? How have their efforts influenced American culture and literature?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 5 expands on the issues outlined in the video to further explore the contradictions and tensions inherent in American ideas about the "frontier" and about borderlands. The curriculum materials offer background on Native American, Mexican, Mexican American, African American, and European-American writers and texts not featured in the video. Introducing literature by women into the discussion of the movement west, the curriculum materials build on the video's examination of the construction of masculinity and gender norms. Unit 5 offers contextual background to expand on the video's introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary styles that shaped the literature of masculinity and western expansion in the United States.

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