ELA 11: American Literature—Semester A
My country, 'tis of Shmoop.
Shmoop loves Moby-Dick. (Don't judge.) But we don't love torturing you with it. So in this course on American Literature, we're going to do things a little differently. After all, doing things differently is as American as you can get.
Don't worry: you're still going to get your Big Deal Authors. We wouldn't take that away from you. But it's not just about reading the words on the page. We're also going to show you why these Big Deal Authors matter.
In the first semester of our Common Core-aligned American Literature course, we'll walk you through readings, essays, and activities that
- kick off with the Puritans.
- transcend with the Transcendentalists.
- nail down some of the biggest hitters in literature: Poe, Dickinson, and Louisa May Alcott. (Yep, Little Women's on board.)
We dare you to follow the U.S. for two-and-a-half centuries and not leave with a bounce in your step.
P.S. ELA 11: American Literature is a two-semester course. You're looking at Semester A, but you can find Semester B of the course here.
Course BreakdownPurchase units individually *
*Purchasing by unit includes course material only.
Unit 1. Colonialism and Exploration 1400 – 1700
This unit will introduce students to American Literature, focusing on the central guiding question, "What makes me 'American'?" The central focus will be on the first Americans, including Native Americans, explorers during the age of colonization, and the Puritans; writing will focus on persuasive strategies and techniques, and will be assessed through persuasive paragraphs with textual support. Plus, we'll answer the most enduring question of all: when did language stop being so old-timey?
Unit 2. Rationalism and Independence: 1700 – 1800
Building upon the ideas introduced in Unit 1, this unit will focus on American seminal texts and rhetoric that involve the split from England and the formation of a new country. Primary documents and letters will support the writing of the time period as well as several significant biographies. Sounds fun? You haven't even met Poor Richard yet.
Unit 3. American Gothic 1800 – 1855
This unit will engage students in an in-depth analysis of American Gothic fiction through themes, plot, suspense, character, setting, and narrative devices. Writing will focus on narrative structure and strategy of the short story and narrative poem, as well as the creative aspect of how to create and organize a narrative in the gothic style. Melville and Hawthorne cameos will prove you don't have to be Poe to be spooky.
Unit 4. Transcendentalism 1830 – 1850
This unit will introduce students to the literary movement of American Transcendentalism, begun by authors such as Emerson and Thoreau and continued by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The central focus will be on the tenets of transcendentalism, which include individualism, self-reliance, metacognition, and a focus on Nature. Yep, we capitalized Nature—it's that important to these innovative writers and thinkers.
Unit 5. Abolition and Women’s Rights 1820 – 1920
How can a hyphen or an ellipsis represent years of oppression? This unit will use short stories and literary nonfiction, including seminal texts to examine the historical significance of the abolitionist and women's rights movements. The central focus will be on how argument, rhetoric, and the power of art can advance a cause—because today, women and ethnic minorities totally have it set, right? (…Collar tug.)
Unit 6. Realism 1855 – 1870
This unit focuses on American Realism as a movement in both urban and rural areas. A novel study on Little Women will a focus on social/historical context, as well as provide students with evidence to prove or disprove that they are so the Jo and you are so the Amy. Plus, we'll be analyzing Jacob Riis photos, Civil War-drenched short stories, and the grossest parts of The Jungle—what else could a Shmooper desire?
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 6: Transcending Transcendentalism
Let's get out of the books and into some images. We keep telling ourselves that Transcendentalism isn't just a literary movement—it's a philosophical, social, and artistic movement as well.
There are several artistic movements that have their roots in Transcendentalism, and we're going to look at a few paintings from artists belonging to the Hudson River School in this lesson.
The Hudson River School is an artistic movement during the 1830s and 1840s. The paintings are meant to visually embody the values of Transcendentalism: the centrality of the individual, the divine communion with nature, and the geography of America. These paintings intend to reveal the spirituality of nature to their viewers and communicate the Transcendental belief that nature and man are inherently good.
In Shmoop-speak, Hudson River pics are as socially revealing as the Andy Warhols of the 1960s. You know, the guy who did this portrait of Marilyn Monroe and this soup can. One scenic portrait of nature reveals a thousand words about American values and thoughts.
That's why we want you to pick up your museum tickets and step into the gallery.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 4.6: The Hudson River School
There are lots of short readings, so make sure you get to them all. Let's get started.
First, a little background on the Hudson River School. These are short and a breeze to get through, after Emerson and Thoreau.
- The Hudson River School
- Artists of the American West
- Spirituality in Nature
- Transcendentalist influences on painters
Next, some tips for how to read a painting. Read the first article very carefully and skim the second one to get the general idea of what elements of form and principles of design to look for.
Then, look at these well-known important works of the HRS.
- A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains
- View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow
- Kindred Spirits
- In the Woods
As you "read" the paintings, think about these ideas. You'll want to jot down these answers somewhere, because you're going to be writing about all four paintings in the activity.
- Where is your eye drawn? What lines take it there? Are they vertical, horizontal, diagonal?
- How is space used in the painting? How are positive and negative space used?
- How is color used in the painting? Where is light coming from, and what sort of intensity is used?
- What sort of textures exist in the painting?
- What is emphasized in the text? De-emphasized? How do objects relate to one another? Is there balance or an imbalance in the painting?
- What might the image be "claiming"—that is, what narrative is the image trying to tell?
- What Transcendental values are present or absent in the painting?
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 4.6: Nature Is Divine Completed
Now that you've analyzed the paintings, you're going to take your jumble of notes and pile them together in some sort of synthesis.
The first thing you need to do is summarize each painting—describe what's happening, including the most important details. In other words, if you have to explain the painting to someone who's never seen it before, what would you say? Include what claim you think the painter is making (what he wants to communicate to his audience) and what Transcendental values he might be depicting visually.
Each summary should be 100–150 words long—enough to get some details, but not enough to go overboard.
Let's do "The Notch" together. Here's what we might write for a summary.
In "The Notch," our eye is drawn to the light—there's a house in the lower left and blue sky in the middle right. The lines are mostly horizontal and diagonal, which means there's an expanse of space (pretty indicative of the expanse of America). There's also a lot of positive space: the painting is busy and full of vibrant forests, powerful mountains, and the impending storm. The trees are intensely colored while the humans are muted, which might imply that the painting is really all about the power of nature. In fact, humans are small and insignificant compared to the mountain, the forest, and the approaching storm. The painter is most likely trying to convince his audience that humans are insignificant in the face of nature. He also is idealizing nature in depicting its true form and purity (hey, it's not all Bambi all the time).
What we've got here is:
- the summary (what's going on in the painting)
- the claim (what the painter wants his audience to believe)
- the Transcendental value (idealizing nature)
And you can do it, too. Go to, aspiring art critics!
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- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11
- Course Type: Basic
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Common Core Standards
The following standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1