Douglass, Whitman, and Dickinson



Frederick Douglass 1818-1895

In the first class we will discuss a short passage by Frederick Douglass about learning to read. We will consider why learning to read was such an important achievement for Douglass and think about the way that it lead to his freedom. I chose to start with Douglass because his experience shows the power that comes with language. As you will see, many of the authors we read this term try to establish their identities through the use of language. Language serves as a way for these authors to join or interact with a larger culture. It also serves as a one way for us to think about particular cultures and cultural values. By looking at the way an author uses language, we can begin to see her history, her values, and her perspective.

In addition to considering language use as a way to think about culture and multiculturalism, we will also consider how culture is expressed in other ways: in music, in art, in custom. Each object or behavior will serve as a way for us to think about larger cultural patterns. In the first class I will end by asking you to think about Frederick Douglass’ reflections on African American Spiritual Songs. Douglass says that it took him a while to see that these songs were more than just songs, they were expressions of history and of hope, of complaint and of resistance. It was only when he stepped back from them and thought about them from a distance that we was able to see how much meaning they had. In other words, he saw that the songs were not just songs but expressions of a much larger cultural. Here is Douglass:

“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.”

Here is a link to a song: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Walt Whitman 1819-1892

Walt Whitman

I also want to provide a few links for the Walt Whitman readings. I expect that the language in these poems will be hard to understand. Here are links to someone reading the passages aloud:

“Song of Myself” #1

“Song of Myself” #16

“Song of Myself” #17

Here is a very rare recording made in 1889/1890 of Walt Whitman reading a few lines from his poem “America”

Finally, here is an image of Emily Dickinson and an image of one of her handwritten poems:

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

Dickinson's Handwriting

Dickinson’s Handwriting




Welcome to English 162: Language, Literature, and Culture at Diablo Valley College.

In this course we will explore the nature of voice. We will consider how language reflects personal and cultural identity, the way numerous cultural voices contribute to the diversity of the United States, and the challenges and opportunities of listening to the voices of others. In the first phase of the course, we will examine personal expressions of identity and culture. In the second phase, we will explore more public expressions of identity and culture. Moving between these phases, we will want to think about the complex connections between personal identity and the public sphere.

I will periodical update this site with information relevant to the course. Whenever I hand something out in class, you will also be able to find it here. If you lose a handout, look for it on this site. I will also use this site to connect you with additional resources and share materials that will enrich your thinking about our topic.

As international students taking classes an American college for the first time, this class will be challenging. In particular, you may find that you struggle with the class reading assignments. My goal is to present you with a typical college level course. I believe it is better to challenge you now, when I am here to help you, than to have you enter next year’s courses unprepared for the work you will be asked to do. Please come and see me if you are struggling with the material. We will work together to make sure that everyone succeeds not just in this course but also in future classes.

Once again, Welcome.