The American Political Novel

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Course Length:
15 weeks


This course examines classic American novelists and explores their treatment of fundamental themes of American political thought such as the state of nature and civil society, individual rights, human freedom and equality, and democratic self-government. Its goals include 1) appreciating of how literary masterpieces do not simply entertain but also explore fundamental questions of human and political life and why political theorists might benefit from studying literature; 2) understanding how American novelists have reflected on questions raised by the American experience and American liberal regime; and 3) developing the ability to read, analyze, and write about novels from such perspectives



  1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter (Penguin)
  2. Herman Melville, Bartleby and Benito Cereno (Dover Thrift edition)
  3. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (Bantam)
  4. Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country (Bantam)
  5. Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time (Collier)
  6. William Faulkner Go Down Moses (Vintage)
  7. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (Vintage)
  8. Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (Viking)



  1. A midterm (20%) and final exam (30%).
  2. A paper 8-10 pages, on questions that arise from our discussion of these novels (30%).
  3. Quizzes, which will help you to stay prepared for class and to read consistently and well (20%).



Participation and attendance: As the fruits of this course will come largely by way of classroom lecture and discussion–for which you must come thoroughly familiar with the assignments, and with questions and observations that will aid class discussion, attendance is crucial. Exceptional class participation could raise a student’s grade by half a letter point. In accordance with Baylor’s attendance policy, a student who misses more than 25% of the scheduled classes, will fail the course. Moreover, students who accumulate more than three absences can expect to see their grade substantially affected.



  • Weeks 1 and 2
    • Assignment: Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter
    • Discussion Questions:
  1. In what ways is Puritan New England, where “religion and law were almost identical,” the antithesis of a liberal society? What are Hawthorne’s reservations about such a society? Are there any considerations that recommend it? Why is Hawthorne interested in the Puritans?
  2. In what ways do the character and deeds of Chillingworth comment on modern natural science? Why does Chillingworth choose to join the Puritan community?
  3. Why does Hester return to Puritan society at the end of her life? Do you think that she did the correct thing in doing so?
  4. Contrast the Puritan society that punishes Hester with the society that Hawthorne describes in “The Custom House.” Are there any similarities between these so apparently different societies? To what extent does “The Custom House” represent a liberal regime—allowing the freedom of its members their private occupations while they accept their status in a “community” devoted to commerce?
  5. What does Hawthorne conceive to be the relationship between Puritan New England and his own society more generally? Is the latter rooted in the former, and if so how? What effects do both societies have on art and human creativity?
  • Week 3:
    • Assignment: Melville, Benito Cereno
    • Discussion Questions:
  1. If all are “created equal,” as our Declaration asserts, do not the Africans enslaved aboard the San Dominick have a right to rebel? Does their assertion of independence follow the principles of the Declaration of Independence? Is Babo’s punishment and execution just?
  2. Contrast Captain Delano, Benito Cereno, and Babo in their capacities for leadership.
  3. Why does Melville tell us the story from Delano’s perspective? To what extent is he Melville’s reflection on American virtues and vices? Does Melville uncover “malign evil in man”?
  4. Where does Melville stand in the exchange between Delano and Benito concerning forgetting and remembering the past? Insofar as Melville writes stories about the past, could he endorse Delano’s position? How does he overcome the debility of Don Benito?
  • Weeks 4 and 5:
    • Assignment: Huckleberry Finn
    • Discussion Questions:
  1. What are the differences between Huck and Tom Sawyer? Why does Twain give Tom a role in the adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Is either boy more representative of American society? Could either be considered a democratic hero?
  2. What do Huck’s adventures on the raft, the various episodes that occur on his trip on the river, reveal about Huck? About the society in which they take place? For example, is the con man (such as the Duke or the Dauphin) a particularly American type? Why?
  3. Why does Twain end the novel with the relatively long story of Tom and Huck’s attempt to free Jim? Does Twain’s art fail him in this last part of the novel, as many critics argue?
  4. Is this novel a criticism of conventional society and an appeal to nature and natural rights? Can any society live up natural standards? Should we ever “light out for the territory,” when, and how?
  5. Does the novel have tragic overtones, especially with respect to slavery? To what extent is the novel a comment on American democracy, and its ability or inability to deal with the injustice of slavery? Is Twain more or less optimistic than Melville about the possibility of harmony between the races in America?
  • Weeks 6 and 7
    • Assignment: Wharton, Custom of the Country
    • Discussion Questions:
  1. What is the “custom of the country” to which the title refers (see p. 131)? Is Undine a good example of “homo Americanus”? Why, or why not?
  2. Is Undine Spragg bound by customs that prevent her from achieving happiness? Is American society, in Wharton’s view, a “custom house” as constricting as Puritan New England? Or is Undine free of customs, “fiercely independent,”?
  3. What is this the cause of Undine’s restlessness and dissatisfaction? (Consider Tocqueville’s chapter on restlessness in democratic societies.)
  4. Compare Undine’s journey through different social and cultural milieu to Huck’s journey on the Mississippi River. Are there ways in which Undine resembles Huck Finn, or is she more like Tom Sawyer?
  5. Does European aristocracy (Raymond de Chelles) hold out more hope for Wharton than it did for Melville (Don Benito)?
  6. Contrast Claude Washington Popple and Ralph Marvel as artists/poets. What does Ralph’s desire to write poetry add to the novel? Why are Popple, Ralph, and Wharton all fascinated with Undine? How does their fascination differ?
  7. Examine the role of Charles Bowen in the novel, who claims to be a “sociologist,” who observes the customs of people. Is he like or unlike the novelist herself in his observations of American society and types?
  • Week 8
    • Assignment: Hemingway, In Our Time
    • Discussion Questions:
  1. How does Nick’s experience in the war help to free him from his society, and its past? Does Hemingway present this as a good thing?
  2. Contrast Nick and Krebs, another American soldier in the novel, especially Krebs’s attempts to talk to others about the war and their failure. What does Hemingway suggest about the need for and the possibility of shared human experience?
  3. Why is the river “two-hearted”? Is Twain’s Mississippi “two-hearted”?
  4. Do Nick’s feelings of contentment in nature provide any foundation for a commitment to politics, society, family, or even friendship? Is Nick really content in nature?
  5. What is the role of speech, or conversation, in the novel? Does it play any role in Nick’s happiness? Contrast Nick’s silence and Hemingway’s writing.
  • Weeks 9 and 10
    • Assignment: Faulkner, Go Down Moses
    • Discussion Questions:
  1. What does Ike learn from Sam Fathers? From his cousin Cass? Why does Ike want to relinquish the land he was to inherit? Does his decision provide him with happiness?
  2. Are there characters who serve as foils, alternatives to Ike, in their choices of a way to live? What role, for example, does Molly Beauchamp play in the novel?
  3. Do Ike McCaslin’s annual hunting trips to the wilderness make him a better human being? Are they analogous to Huck Finn’s “lighting out for the territory”?
  4. Do Ike’s hunting trips serve the same purposes as Nick Adams’s fishing trips? What are the differences?
  5. Why does Faulkner make it so difficult for the reader to understand the complicated family trees of the characters? What is the relation between slavery and incest?
  6. Does Faulkner present a view of human progress, or human decline? Does the latest generation, for example, Roth Edmonds, hold any signs of hope? Does Faulkner’s novel?
  7. How do the stories in this book present a view of human life that modifies or deepens the Declaration’s understanding of individualism and natural rights? Does the South, as interpreted by Faulkner, have anything to teach to America?
  • Weeks 11 and 12:
    • Assignment: Percy, The Moviegoer
    • Discussion Questions:
  1. What does Binx’s Aunt Emily try to teach him about life, and about the meaning of Western civilization? What for her are the highest human virtues? Why is she interested in the reading the Great Books?
  2. Why does Binx attend so many movies? How can one be a moviegoer without attending movies (see p. 216)? How does Binx’s “study” of movies differ from Aunt Emily’s study of the Great Books?
  3. Why does Binx spend time in movie theaters rather than in nature such as Huck Finn, Ike McCaslin, or Nick Adams? To what extent is moviegoing a sign of escapism and evasion of life? Could Binx’s activities show him a way to attain what these other characters were looking for? Is Binx a self-conscious Huck? If so, is this an improvement?
  4. What does Binx mean by such terms as repetition, duplication, and rotation, horizontal and vertical searches?
  5. Is Binx trying to recover the past or to free himself from it? Examine Binx’s sense of place and time. Contrast it with Faulkner’s.
  6. Compare Binx’s malaise and Undine Spragg’s restlessness.
  7. Compare Binx’s experience in war with Nick Adams’s.
  8. Does Percy agree with Hemingway about the limits of speech and communication? How would he formulate the problem, and how does his novel address it?
  • Weeks 13 and 14:
    • Assignment: Bellow, Ravelstein
    • Discussion Questions:
  1. Why does the novel open in Paris? Why is Europe appealing to an American? Compare Ravelstein’s interest in Europe, especially France, with Undine Spragg’s.
  2. How do Ravelstein’s life and preferences resemble those of Binx’s Aunt Emily?
  3. What is the role of nature in Ravelstein (consider the New Hampshire trip, Ravelstein’s reaction to the parrots in Hyde Park, Chick’s trip to the Carribean)? Is Ravelstein like the typically American heroes such as Huck, Ike, and Nick Adams?
  4. What is the role of Judaism in the novel? In Ravelstein’s life? To what extent does Ravelstein’s emphasis on Jerusalem over Athens near the end of his life connect him with Binx (religion), and with Faulkner (history)?
  5. Contrast Chick’s view of the world with Ravelstein’s. Contrast Chick’s relation with Rosmamund with Ravelstein’s with Nikki. Is Rosamund the real teacher in the novel? What and how does she teach?
  6. What does Chick claim to learn from Ravelstein about politics? Is the teaching better expressed in Chick’s writing or in Ravelstein’s life?
  7. Does Bellow’s novel contain lessons for liberal societies?