American Protest Literature: From the Revolution Through Today

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Duration 01:11:00

Harvard University

Timothy Patrick McCarthy holds a joint faculty appointment at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Twice named one of Harvard Crimson’s “Professors of the Year,” Dr. McCarthy is the recipient of the 2019 Manuel C. Carballo Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Kennedy School’s highest teaching honor, and co-recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal. He is the author or editor of six books, including the forthcoming Reckoning with History: Unfinished Stories of American Freedom, and Stonewall’s Children: Living Queer History in an Age of Liberation, Loss, and Love.



Protest Literature in the United States

The United States is a protest nation. From the Declaration of Independence to the present day, American politics and culture have been profoundly shaped by small acts of protest, mass mobilizations, and sustained movement organizing. This has come in a wide variety of forms: conservative and progressive, sweeping and incremental, violent and peaceful, individual and collective. Indeed, American history is a people’s history and dissent has been the engine—the lifeblood—of American democracy.


History of Protest Literature in the United States 

Writers and other artist-activists have played a key role in this. This wide-ranging lecture examines a sampling of texts from the rich tradition of protest literature in the United States: from the American Revolution to the present day. Drawn from Professor McCarthy’s immensely popular and award-winning course at Harvard University, his lecture will examine the links between literary representation and historical forms of protest, the various rhetorical strategies—shock value, empathy, and symbolic action—that these artists and texts employ, and the impact of protest literature on American politics and culture.


Suggested Readings about American Protest Literature:

  • The Radical Reader: A Documentary Anthology of the American Radical Tradition, Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John McMillian, eds.
  • American Protest Literature, Zoe Trodd, ed.
  • Protest Nation: Words That Inspired a Century of American Radicalism, Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John McMillian, eds.
  • Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest, 1790-1860, Richard Newman, Patrick Rael, and Phillip Lapsansky, eds.
  • Building the Wall: The Play and Commentary, by Robert Schenkkan


Discussion Questions from this American Protest Literature Course

  1. What is “protest literature,” and how might we define it?
  2. How do protest artists use “shock value,” “empathy,” and “symbolic action?”
  3. How has protest literature changed over time?
  4. What impact has protest literature had on American politics and culture?
  5. What do you consider to be a good example of protest literature—historically and/or today?


Learn More About American Protest Literature

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