American Migrations: History, Culture, Literature

Prof. Dr. Christine Gerhardt (American Studies)
Prof. Dr. Sabine Freitag (Modern and Contemporary History)

Course Description

Much of US-American culture has been shaped by histories of migration—both global migrations to the US, and internal migrations within and across the North American continent. The impact of migration on American culture and its narratives can hardly be overestimated. On the one hand, the US has long prided itself to be able to absorb people, languages, and cultures from all over the world; the “American Dream” and the idea that the US was “destined” to spread from Atlantic to Pacific are deeply linked to concepts of migration. On the other hand, the slave trade and Native American “relocations” profoundly contradict idealizing notions of the US as “nation of immigrants.”

We will study formative moments in the history of American migration, from the first arrival of European colonists to major moments of “mass” immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. Focusing on key phenomena such as the California gold rush and the dust bowl, the African American “Great Migration” to the North and the shift of wealthy whites to the “sunbelt” South, we will discuss how different forms of migratory unrest have shaped American cultures.

At the same time, we will explore which role literature has played in negotiating the meanings of migration in the US. Reading a selection of short stories by different (im)migrant authors, we will ask: how do migration stories shape but also critique dominant ideas of the Melting Pot, the American Dream, or the Frontier? Which roles do family, food, education, or the natural world play in the migratory imagination? How do ethnicity and gender inflect these stories’ perspectives? And which formal and aesthetic features characterize American literature of migration?


This is a regular seminar for which you can get 2–8 ECTS points in English and American Studies, or in History, or for the Studium Generale.

It will take place as a compact seminar (Blockseminar) at a study center in the French Alps (Chalet Giersch, Manigod), Aug. 14 (Fr) – Aug. 21 (Fr) 2020, with a mandatory pre-meeting on April 28, 2020 (6-8 p.m. sharp; U9/01.11).

We will travel by car in small groups; the week costs about 120,-- (double room) plus 60,-- (food) per student.

For details and pictures from the last 3 seminars, see

If you have any questions, please feel free to send an email to christine.gerhardt(at), I’ll be happy to help!

There is a limited number of slots, so please register as soon as possible via FlexNow, or by sending an email!


The seminar will be held in German and English. Students can use the language they feel most comfortable with, but should be able to follow discussions and read short texts in both languages. Each participant should give a 20-minute presentation. For a grade, you can write a final paper or take an oral exam.


We will read 10-15 short stories, and a number of historical and conceptual essays about migration history and literature. All texts will be made available on the Virtual Campus by April.