English 209 Essay Assignment
Your major writing assignment for this class will be a 1400-1600-word analytical essay (typed, doublespaced, 12 point font, 1” margins, MLA format) in which you discuss a topic or theme and how it is
handled in one or more of the texts on our syllabus. For some of the topics, you may want to read other
works by the author and use those in your essay as well. Remember this essay should not be a plot
summary. Your purpose is to develop a position, or thesis, and support it with major points of discussion
through a close reading of the primary texts.
Example topics:
 Do a close reading of a single lyric poem by any poet on our syllabus (i.e., line-by-line analysis with
the goal of supporting a debatable thesis about the poem).
 Take the quiz question on the “Contemplations” powerpoint (on Blackboard) and expand it to
consider two or more stanzas from the poem. However, you must not merely consider the stanzas
separately, but rather show how they relate to one another (compare and contrast).
 Discuss how Franklin’s Autobiography can be read as either (a) an assault on the Puritan emphasis
on religious piety and inward calling, (b) a movement away from faith in providence toward a belief
in the efficacy of self-reliance, or (c) a promotion of a secular and humanitarian work ethic.
 Discuss how Bryant uses the American natural scene to show his philosophical ideas.
 How do the works of Bryant and Cooper reflect the painterly aesthetic of the Hudson River School
of painters? Compare and contrast. (see Cooper and Bryant powerpoints on Blackboard.)
 Trace the changes in psychological moods among Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”, “The Day is
Done”, and “The Fire of Driftwood” (or among any of his poems in NAAL).
 Contrast the views of “A Psalm of Life” to those expressed by Thoreau in Walden.
 Compare and contrast Douglass’s Narrative with Franklin’s Autobiography—narratives about selfcreation and about the possibilities open to the individual in 18th and 19th century America.
 What role does religion play in Douglass’s Narrative? How does he reconcile his own faith with the
hypocrisy of religious slaveholders?
 Douglass writes his slave narrative as a series of incidents – discuss ways in which those various
incidents are made to cohere. Why does he choose these incidents and not others?
 Can “The Fall of the House of Usher” be logically read as the story of the two sides of the self—
emotional and rational? How does this reflect differences between Romanticism and the Age of
 Discuss how the events of “The Fall of the House of Usher” can be interpreted as both natural and
supernatural—or, make a strong case for one or the other.
 Discuss how Emerson uses analogies: choose several analogies he creates in Nature and explain
their significance.
 Analyze Emerson’s Nature through the lens of your own experience: discuss a few significant
passages by (a) explaining what Emerson is trying to say and then (b) relating them to moments in
your own life. Although this option is personal in nature, you should still argue a debatable thesis.
 How does Emerson’s “Each and All” reflect the concerns put forth in his longer essay Nature?
 Discuss how Thoreau’s Walden may be considered a “practice” of Emerson’s “theories” in Nature.
 Explore any of the following central concepts in Thoreau: the spiritual vision of unity with nature,
the significance of language in achieving such a vision, the theme of self-reliance, the significance of
EN 209 – Guthrie – FA 2016
 Explore Whitman’s use of the catalog as a poetic device. Then illustrate, by means of close analysis,
the effects Whitman achieves in one or more particular catalogs from Song of Myself.
 Read carefully a group of Dickinson poems with related themes—the natural world, death, traveling,
private experience, art and its value—then write an interpretation of one of the poems that includes
your expanded understanding of the way Dickinson uses the theme in other poems in the group.
 Many Dickinson poems illustrate change in the consciousness of the poet or speaker. Choose two or
more poems in which this happens and trace the process by which the poems reflect and create the
These are only examples—you are free to focus on other ideas in the texts. Be alert for topics as you
read new authors in the coming weeks. You can also find ideas for topics within the biographies of the
authors and in the introduction to each time period. However, you may not use outside sources for
your essay, just the primary texts. (You may use Wikipedia or other sources to look up references that
you don’t recognize – just make sure to cite any information you use.) Keep in mind: these are just
general topics—within your topic you’ll need to identify and argue a debatable thesis.