This fall, for the first time, I have been assigned to teach one of those massive undergraduate Brit Lit surveys ranging from the late Renaissance to Modernism. From what I’m led to believe, most of those who teach this class are Victorianists who find it rather easy to tiptoe through the tulips of C17th and C18 poetry and prose, plucking a few nice things to complement a semester resplendent with Romantics, Vickies, and Mods. For me, choosing among texts for the earlier two-thirds of the semester was rather like Sophie’s Choice, especially since not even English majors are likely to take C18 anything before graduation.
Of course, I can’t assign Tom Jones and Clarissa and call it a day, though the thought had occurred to me. I ended up taking the opposite path of assigning many short poems, literary prefaces and essays with the purpose of showing the British Early Modern/Enlightenment era in all its confusing, self-contradictory glory. For poets I have Donne through Pope, and then prose selections from as many C18 writers as possible, including all of Gulliver and a full day and a half of pieces from Johnson.
The limitations of the semester-long survey are severe, but while writing my syllabus, I found myself having nightmares that I was forced to limit the eighteenth-century section even further. “You only have a week for the eighteenth!” a booming administrative voice declared. Then, when I’d dream-revised, the voice said, “Just kidding! You only have a day!” A day? I thought. What could anyone get across about the eighteenth century in a day?
So here’s my version of the Desert Island question, limited not by space but by time. If you only had one day (a 90-minute class, say) to teach something about the eighteenth to a class of undergraduates, what text (or texts) would you use to exemplify it? You probably can’t discuss a whole novel, so you can excerpt, if you like.
I’ll post my dream-answer in the comments.