The purpose of my unit will be to present the beginning stages of a coherent and progressive approach to the study of American literature. The rationale for my unit arises out of a personal need to break through the “literary encounters of the separate kind” approach that holds popular sway in the teaching of literature today. Instead, my intent is to provide a structure for viewing literature that is dynamic in form yet concentrated in focus, a structure that will permit students to see the linkages that tie one work of literature to another.
To provide a structure for students to see connections between literary works, I have turned to mythology for the unifying elements. Specifically, it is in the archetypal pattern of the hero-quest myth—the central myth of all literature—that will be the structural framework of my study. One of my objectives is to place the hero of American fiction squarely into the tradition of the hero-quester, to view him as yet another journeyman on the standard path taken by all mythological heroes in their search for identity. To see that Thoreau’s journey in his
, where he reflects upon the “essential facts of life,” and Hemingway’s quest in his hunting saga
The Green Hills of Africa
for the “ideal, single perfect shot” share a common narrative pattern is to begin to see a significance that goes beyond individual works.
Furthermore, I intend to concentrate my focus upon the most elaborate experience in the heroic quest pattern—the process of initiation, which, in American literature, characteristically takes place away from society. In addition, the initiation of the American hero-quester will be looked at in light of the pattern of imagery that has developed around this experience. It is in the contrasting symbolic landscapes of the garden and the wilderness that the American hero undergoes his initiation test.
My suggestion for teaching this unit is to strive for a balance between the materials of myth and archetypes and the literary selections considered in the unit. By integrating both, the student will not only be given a narrative structure through which the content of the literature can be focused, but also led to see that all literature arises out of materials that are old and enduring. To see literature as a whole, to see the interrelatedness of one work to another, to acquire a sense of continuity—of one step leading to another, of details gradually fitting into a larger design—is essential to an understanding of the literary experience.
The first two sections of my unit can be considered the matrix through which the last two sections can be viewed. Activities intended to be used with the unit together with a suggested reading list for students can be found at the end of the paper.