Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”


A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?


Teaching Women and Transcendentalism


Part 2 of “Pedagogical Lessons from the Transcendentalists: 2017 NEH Summer Institute in Concord”

In Part 1 of this PALS blog post about the NEH Summer Institute on “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller,” I admitted that a hyper-vigilant “hermeneutics of suspicion” had kept me from regularly teaching male Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in my American literature classes. I instead focused on incorporating marginalized nineteenth-century women and minority writers into my syllabi in order to expose students to a diverse and inclusive canon of American literature.

But the NEH Summer Institute at Concord made me aware of female Transcendentalist voices that will change the way I teach all of my nineteenth-century American literature courses. Not only will I integrate women writers such as Mary Moody Emerson into my courses as significant writers in their own right, knowing more about women and Transcendentalism will also change how I teach canonical male authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

(Note: Since Margaret Fuller is regularly taught and studied and her major bearing on Transcendentalism is commonly acknowledged, in this post I will focus on female writers and thinkers who have received less recognition.)

Emerson manuscript 2
Page from Mary Moody Emerson’s “Almanack”

Mary Moody Emerson: Proto-Transcendentalist

Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt, was a significant influence on his thinking and writing. She was born in 1774 and, in the spirit of the later Transcendentalists, was a self-educated woman. For over fifty years she kept extensive journals that she called her “Almanacks” which “offer a rare and prolific example of early American women’s scholarly production.” As a matter of fact, her nephew regarded his aunt’s Almanacks as a vast register of her intellect and often borrowed and recopied the thread-bound fascicles into his own journals. The Almanacks were so important to him that he kept them after her death; they were eventually donated with his papers to Harvard’s Houghton Library.

The Almanacks were overlooked in the archives for decades until feminist scholars such as Phyllis Cole, Sandra Petrulionis, and Noelle Baker started giving them the scholarly attention they deserve. Petrulionis and Baker are in the process of creating an online edited edition of the Almanacks, which can be accessed through Women Writers Online as an excellent teaching resource.

Mary Moody Emerson’s thoughts in the Alamacks herald some of concepts that we tend to recognize as “original” to Emerson and Thoreau (who respected and admired his mentor’s aunt) decades before the men came on the scene. Her 1804 comment, “In communion with trees, with streams and stars and suns, man finds his own glory inskribed on every flower and sparkling in every beam,” predicts the basic Transcendentalist notion that nature is metaphor and microcosm of existence. Decades later, in 1836, her nephew would echo in his now-famous essay “Nature,” “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic.”

In 1806, after viewing a total solar eclipse, Mary Moody Emerson joyfully wrote in her Almanack:

[T]he winds were hushed as if in awe–the birds screamed with what rapt devotion did I view my Makers hand–Oh how forgotten are the vanitis & sorrows of life at grand appearances! … I sunk into life and walked & lost the afternoon.

Mary Moody Emerson’s notion that the natural world can give such perspective and meaning to human experiences, would, of course, be simulated by Thoreau much later in Walden, in 1851: “We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

Mary Moody Emerson can be taught as an intellectual precursor to Emerson and Thoreau and as an example of the how women are all too often dropped from intellectual and literary history. But she can also be taught on her own terms, as a remarkable writer and thinker, and as a case for the importance of continued feminist archival recovery.


Collection box for Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society

Activist Sisters and Aunts

Although remembered for their role as moral arbiters and public intellectuals, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson slowly came to their anti-slavery attitudes and activism through the women in their families and social circles. According to Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls, “Concord’s antislavery activists were led by women, including all the women in Thoreau’s family.” In 1835, Concord’s Female Anti-Slavery Society’s founding members included Thoreau’s sisters Sophia and Helen, Emerson’s wife Lidian, and many extended family members and friends. These women were also involved with the Middlesex County Anti-Slavery Society, which was responsible for bringing Frederick Douglass to Concord and raising funds for John Brown.

While the women in Transcendental circles were the instigators of Concord’s abolitionist movement, as women they  were barred from speaking in public. Long after their female family members and friends had exposed them to abolitionist activism, Thoreau and Emerson both eventually adopted antislavery attitudes and used their writing and speeches as opportunities to speak out on the issue. Emerson’s take was more tempered “Emancipation in the British West Indies” (1844) and then more bold with his “Seventh of March Speech on the Fugitive Slave Law” (1854). Thoreau was known for his public support and defense of radical abolitionist John Brown with this essays “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854)and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859).

When we teach Emerson and Thoreau as strong voices for the abolitionist movement, we can remind students that while the women of Concord may not have left great oratory and treatises behind, their voices and moral influence exist nonetheless in the works of their male counterparts.



Louisa May Alcott

Transcendentalism’s Female Skeptics

Women in the Transcendentalist movement also functioned as skeptics and cautionary voices. Louisa May Alcott, daughter of Bronson Alcott, wrote “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) a scathing satire of her family’s winter at Fruitlands, a Transcendental Utopian community not far from Concord. Fruitlands was established in 1843 by Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, and the Alcott family lived there for one winter when Alcott was a girl. Alcott’s story tells of the toll that male idealism takes on the minds, souls, and lived experiences of women. The men in the story spend their time in tedious esoteric debates, while the character based on Alcott’s mother, Abba Alcott, works to keep the household and family afloat. When a storm threatens the farm’s crop, “Some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away,” and the women and children have to save the harvest.

Like the Alcott family, the family in the story faces a crisis when the father loses his spirit after the failure of the community, but the mother keeps the family together. The Alcott family eventually moved back to Concord after their sojourn at Fruitlands, where the girls grew up in Orchard House, the setting of the novel that would eventually make Louisa May Alcott famous, Little Women. “Transcendental Wild Oats” reminds us that Alcott can be taught not only in the traditions of the domestic and sentimental novel and popular literature but also in the context of Transcendentalism.

Lidian Jackson Emerson was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife. (He changed her name to “Lidian” from “Lydia” upon their marriage in 1835.) Although she was supportive of her husband and his career, she worried about his deviation from Christian religious orthodoxy as a Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist leader. In her “Transcendental Bible,” she lampoons the lofty intellectual aims of Transcendentalism that sometimes privilege the soul and mind over the concerns of the heart:

If you have refused all sympathy of the sorrowful, all pity and aid to the sick, all toleration to the infirm of character, if you have condemned the intellectual and loathed such sinners as have discovered want of intellect by their sin, then are you a perfect specimen of Humanity.

Let us aspire after this Perfection! So be it.

In spite of such sharp critique, “Emerson admired Lidian’s independence of mind, and…even claimed he borrowed many of his ideas from her.” He called her “Transcendental Bible” “The Queen’s Bible” after his pet name for her, “Queenie.”

Both of these pieces are short, accessible, and very teachable.They may lead to more nuanced discussions of the Transcendentalists, as these female critics provide a voice for students who may approach Transcendentalism skeptically. At the same time, more reproachful points-of-view allows for a more well rounded approach to teaching male Transcendentalist authors to students who might overly and uncritically valorize them.

The forgotten history of women in the Transcendentalist movement reveals women writers, intellectuals, and activists who provided influence, ideas, and inspiration to the movement. Indeed, their lives and writing provide important new content and contexts for teaching nineteenth-century American literature.