What is dignity?
Where does it come from?
Who or what is included in – or excluded from – dignity?
How does one get or lose dignity?
Is dignity always an adjunct of the human?
To answer these questions, the philosophers, religious scholars, political theorists, historians, and legal scholars who dominate the emergent field of Dignity Studies occasionally turn to literary texts – notably, Herman Melville’s invocation of "democratic dignity" in Moby-Dick (1851). Yet literary critics themselves have been strikingly absent from these discussions.
The purpose of this course, then, is two-fold. First, it asks what a dignitarian approach to literature might be: What are its methodologies? Its purposes? Its archive? Conversely, what does literary criticism have to offer Dignity Studies?
We will take our lead from African American cultural critic and novelist, Ralph Ellison, who not only laid the groundwork for a dignitarian literary criticism, but placed race at the center of that critical project. Following Ellison, we will read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) as the preeminent literary articulation of the ongoing dignitarian crisis of race in the United States.