Students Learn about the Free State’s Literary History in Randy Ontiveros’ Literary Maryland Course

October 7, 2014

In Professor Randy Ontiveros’ Literary Maryland (ENGL428X), students are exploring the state’s rich literary and historical background.

Students in Ontiveros' seminar encounter a range of literary forms from plays to fiction to poetry to epistolary forms. Their study begins in the colonial era and moves through post-Revolutionary and antebellum Maryland. In the second half of the course, students examine literature from Maryland’s post-Civil War period up to our own time.

One of the more famous authors on the syllabus is Edgar Allan Poe, whose time in Baltimore was important to the development of his literary imagination. Critics have suggested that Baltimore’s cholera plague of the 1830’s was important in shaping Poe’s sense of the macabre, especially in such stories as “The Mask of the Red Death” or “King Pest.” Poe may be among the state’s more celebrated authors, but the range of writers in Maryland’s literary history is enormous. Despite its size, the state’s history encapsulates the dissonant opinions of an entire nation.

Ontiveros believes that literature can be enjoyed for its beauty, but also for the insight it gives into society and politics. In class, students read “Journey from Patapsco in Maryland to Annapolis” (c. 1740) by Richard Lewis, one of America’s first nature poets and someone who used pastoral poetry to suggest that the American colonies were surpassing England in world importance. “Americans at this time were just beginning to understand themselves as different than the British, and the literature was part of how that process happened,” said Ontiveros. Ontiveros gave another reason why literature is important to understanding history: “With just history . . . there isn’t as strong a sense of feeling. Literature conveys emotion, what it feels like to be alive during a particular period.” Ontiveros’s favorite assigned reading is Frederick Douglass's autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. According to Ontiveros, Douglass had a moral vision far ahead of his time and was a masterful stylist.

The Riversdale Mansion

During the course, students are required to visit four locations within the state that are related to Maryland literature. As a class they are making field trips to the Maryland Historical Society, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Michael Lawrence '15 described his visit to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

"At the site we saw oystering boats and equipment, some of which are still in use, and learned more about the Bay's ecosystem, which featured prominently in the early texts we read in class. My main takeaway from this trip was that the depletion of the oyster population is a significant factor in the pollution of the bay, serving as an example of the restraint and regulation that should be practiced in the harvesting of our most abundant resources."

Rebecca Lee '15 shared Lawrence's sentiments.

"It was a sobering experience to visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and personally get to see how important the Bay is to Maryland’s identity. I had learned about the depletion of the Bay’s oysters and crabs in passing, but after seeing it in person, it has been difficult to shake off the sadness of the loss of so much of the Bay over the past decades. I wondered if this literary dialogue praising the Bay’s unlimited resources may have contributed to the overuse of this great ecosystem that has made this place our home."

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Ontiveros chose these three sites because they cut across different time periods and regions. For the fourth location of their choosing, students have the freedom to drive as far as the Garrett County Historical Museum in western Maryland, or to stay as close to campus as the Riversdale Mansion in nearby Riverdale.

Thus far Lee's favorite reading in the course has been a collection of letters from Rosalie Calvert, former resident of the Riversdale Mansion.

"Through past history courses, I knew that life as an early American was fraught with various kinds of strife," said Lee.

"It was a unique experience to read the personal account of a woman who had experienced all of these challenges. The letters reveal that she was a mother who had lost several of her children when they were young, a common experience among early Americans. Though the prevalence of child mortality was factual knowledge that I had previously, it was certainly a different and valuable experience to empathize with Mrs. Calvert’s grief. The letters gave me a greater understanding of the tragedies that early Americans had to face."

In addition to the excursions, students in the course are working on digital essays that will be published on Literary Maryland Online, a web-based classroom and museum that will give the public access to the state’s literary history through interactive maps, timelines, photos, and more. Students gain experience with digital tools, research skills, and publishing. In the future, Ontiveros plans on turning the course into an i-Series course, which would make the class available to students from all majors.

Already, Ontiveros' students understand the importance of the state's literary history.

"I think Maryland's literary history is much richer than it is generally given credit for. Historically, the state is home not only to some of the great American writers, but to a diversity of voices and perspectives, many of which precede the arrival of the colonists as well," said Lawrence.

"This class has helped me realize how much I had taken the rich culture of Maryland for granted. If you take a quick walk around the University of Maryland campus, you will pass by Baltimore Hall or Calvert Hall, names you’ve probably been used to hearing. But I see these historical names differently now that I have read Lord Baltimore’s first Instructions to the Colonists, or Rosalie Calvert’s intimate letters to her family. I really think that anyone who feels invested in Maryland should take this incredibly valuable opportunity to read the first-hand accounts of early Marylanders," said Lee.