American Literature Honors

Summer Reading Assignment 2020

Select one of the following American novels to read. The purpose of this section is to expose you to portrayal of America through a classic American text. As you read, pay attention to the larger ideas about America - its history, its ideals, its promises - that the author explores.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Commonly named among the Great American Novels, the work is among the first in major American literature to be written throughout in vernacular English, characterized by local color regionalism. … The book, which was published in 1884, is noted for its colorful description of people and places along the Mississippi River. Set in a Southern antebellum society that had ceased to exist about 20 years before the work was published, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an often scathing satire on entrenched attitudes, particularly racism. Perennially popular with readers, the novel has also been the continued object of study by literary critics since its publication. - From Amazon.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. - From Goodreads.com.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. With wit and wisdom, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between these four women and their American-born daughters as all navigate the realities of their heritage and their pursuit of the American Dream. As each reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. First published in 1989. - adapted from Goodreads.com

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (revised edition)
Set on and around a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, Love Medicine—the first novel by bestselling, National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich—is the epic story about the intertwined fates of two families: the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. With astonishing virtuosity, each chapter draws on a range of voices to limn its tales. Black humor mingles with magic, injustice bleeds into betrayal, and through it all, bonds of love and family marry the elements into a tightly woven whole that pulses with the drama of life. First published in 1984, the novel has been revised and reorganized by the author.- From Amazon

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, The Underground Railroad chronicles a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share. - From Amazon

Assignments for PART I:

  1. Take notes while reading your selected novel, focusing your thinking and responses on what it is the author is saying about the American experience and what it means to be American. What is the author saying about the promise America holds, the ideals of America, the contradictions in America, its underlying values both positive and negative?
  2. Find at least 10 specific passages from the book that most prominently touch on the novel’s big ideas. Complete at least 10 well thought out and developed entries. Your notes must come from different parts of the text—not from a single chapter or cluster of chapters.
  3. Organize your notes using the themes below. Focus on the themes that figure the most prominently in the text and don’t worry if your notes address only two or three of the themes.
    1. The challenges related to striving for the American Dream in society
    2. The struggle between Materialism vs Spiritual values in American society
    3. The Immigrant or Outsider experience in American society
    4. The idea of Justice, Equality and Fairness in American society
    5. The struggle for Identity, both as an individual and as a group
  4. Insightful and informed participation is critical in an honors level class, and good notes will give you a springboard into discussion. Keep the following suggestions in mind when you take notes:
    • Find powerful textual evidence that reveals how the author thinks about America in terms of the selected themes. For example, authors perceive the impact and importance of the American Dream differently; or they have different beliefs about how equal, just and fair American society is. Look for places in the novel where you hear your author’s take on American society, its flaws and strengths. How do the passages you selected convey commentary on America? How do the passages in the novel reveal the author’s ideas about the themes and how America operates? How do the lines you select explore the author’s understanding of human nature?
    • Avoid summarizing the novel. Do not respond to a quotation by restating it in your own words. Do not simply retell the story from around your quote. Your ability to determine what is important in what you are reading and your ability to determine how you feel about that important idea are what count here.
    • Take notes from the entire book. Steinbeck does not drop themes and ideas as the book progresses; if anything, the ideas related to the themes grow stronger as the novel goes along leading to the final, culminating scenes. The notes you take should reflect this.
    • Do not use Spark Notes, Shmoop, or any other “aid” to understanding the novel. This is a long book, but it is easy to read. Trust yourself and your ability, confront the text boldly, and don’t deprive yourself of an opportunity to tangle with a great book by a great American author.

Sample Response for notes in PART I

Here’s an example of how you might react to a section of text. It is from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Notice how the themes come through in the discussion of the text and how it helps us understand Bradbury’s point of view. Fahrenheit 451 is set in a dystopian world where reading books is outlawed and people are constantly barraged with mindless distractions and entertainment. In the response below, the novel’s main character, Montag, is complaining about this society:

“Nobody listens anymore. I can't talk to the walls because they're yelling at me, I can't talk to my wife; she listens to the walls. I just want someone to hear what I have to say. And maybe if I talk long enough it'll make sense. And I want you to teach me to understand what I read.” (78)

At this point in the book, Montag is just starting to figure out that there are some serious problems in the society. For the first time he is thinking like an individual and seeking something beyond the mindless entertainment and distractions that are everywhere. This struggle for identity is not just about Montag, but about the society as a whole. It seems that through the character of Montag, the author is voicing his opinions about the shallowness of American consumer society, which values entertainment and noise over thoughtful reading and intelligent thought. Montag can’t even concentrate enough to read more than a sentence or two. Bradbury is critical of the society’s misguided values in the novel, which places more emphasis on materialism and being entertained, buying big TV walls to escape from reality, over more important values such as critical thinking and conversation. The American Dream may involve working to become successful so you can buy a bigger house or a nicer car, but Bradbury seems to be warning us that if we let that consume us too much, we will lose sight of what’s really valuable - personal connections, thinking, understanding the past.

Commentary on student response: Notice how this response contains the students’ interpretation of important ideas from the novel as well as some analysis of what the author is doing. The highlighted themes from the notes are used to deepen the understanding and discuss how the larger ideas are developed in the novel. Although the response discusses ideas outside the text, it does not stray far and maintains a focus on the specifics from the novel.


Read each of the Supplementary Readings listed below:

Copies of these will be posted on Google Classroom. You are responsible for printing them out and bringing hard copies to class in the fall.

  1. “Letter from an American Farmer: Letter III: What is an American?” by Hector St. John De Crevecoer (18th century essay)
  2. “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman (poem)
  3. “Let America be America Again” and “I, Too,” by Langston Hughes (poems)
  4. “38” by Layli Long Soldier (poem)

Note-taking Assignments for PART II

  1. Read each of the four supplementary readings listed above to help you understand different perspectives on America - its promises, its ideals; and how the American Dream is viewed differently by writers over the years.
  2. Take notes on each text: Your notes should be ideas and text examples related to the following bulleted focus areas. When you return to school in the fall, be prepared to intelligently discuss your ideas, compare the different texts, and write about them.
    • What the author is saying about what promise America holds, the ideals of America, the contradictions in America, its underlying values both positive and negative.
    • How the idea of the American spirit or American Dream is perceived by the author.
    • The mood, tone, and purpose of the piece.
    • The differing issues and/or conflicts that have helped shape American identity (this will require considering the similarities and differences between the texts and time periods they were written).
  3. Compile your notes and submit them at the beginning of school. You should have different notes for each selection. For each text, submit a page of notes. It does not need to be written out as an essay. Your thinking can also be completed in thoughtful margin notes on a copy of the text. Your notes should provide evidence of your thinking and how the author’s ideas are reflected in the bulleted areas above.


Summer Reading Vocabulary List 2020 -- Learn the vocabulary words and the definitions below and be ready to be quizzed on them the first weeks of school:

acrid - unpleasant to taste or smell
amenity - A desirable or useful feature or facility of a building or place.
appellation - A name, title, or designation
belligerent - aggressive, quarrelsome
benefactor - a person who gives money or other help to a person or cause
benevolent - characterized by being or doing good
brash - self-assertive in a rude, noisy or overbearing way
brooding - showing deep unhappiness of thought appearing darkly menacing
chastise - criticize; punish; reprimand
confound - confuse; puzzle
conjecture - guess, infer, speculate
contemptuous - disdainful, sneering, despicable
contrite - remorseful, apologetic
cunning - deceitful cleverness
discrepancy - A lack of compatibility or similarity between two or more facts.
dispensation - exemption from a rule or usual requirement
disposition - a person's inherent qualities of mind and character
dissipate - scatter, disperse
gaudy - flashy, showy; not in good taste
heathen - a person who does not belong to a widely held religion
imperious - commanding, haughty, over-bearing
imperishable - enduring forever
incredulous - disbelieving, skeptical
insolent - arrogant; presumptuous and insulting
languish - To become weak
listless - limp, lacking energy, languid
loathing - great dislike
obsolete - No longer produced or used, out of date
paradox - an apparently contradictory statement that actually contains some truth
penitent - sorry, contrite, regretful
pert - attractively lively
petulant - huffy, snappish, irritable
pretense - false appearance
prodigy - person with exceptional talents
prostrate - face-down, drained, exhausted
provisions - an amount or thing supplied or provided
quandary - a state of perplexity or uncertainty over what to do in a difficult situation
rampant - flourishing or spreading unchecked
ravenous - famished, very hungry, starving
regal - royal
remorse - feeling of regret for one's misdeeds or sins
repose - To be in peace and at rest
revere - treat with respect
row - a loud noise or uproar
ruse - a crafty plan
spry - lively, active (especially an older person)
subsistence - Means of support or livelihood; often the barest
sullen - surly, brooding, somber
sultry - hot and humid
supplication - entreaty, prayer, request
transcend - rise above, go beyond, excel
truculent - hostile, defiant, confrontational
uncanny - mysteriously strange
unfettered - free from restraints, liberated
unkempt - untidy, disheveled, scruffy
vigorously - done with force or energy
vivacious - lively, cheerful, energetic
wane - diminish, fade, decrease
wizened - wrinkled, shriveled, aged
wry - dryly humorous, cynical