Dates and Contact Information

Contact Ms. Sasso at or
Tutorials: Block 4 Every Day. Saturday 9:30 - 11:30.
BOOK RETURNS: Returned books must have your name in them or you will be charged.

Homework Due Dates:
Feb 12: Lysistrata posters due
Candide assignment due before Feb. break.
Feb 12: Answer questions and define terms on Leda and the Swan
Feb 16: Iphigeneia at Aulis full essay due
Feb 16: Poetry Essay MP3 (See email for poems.)

Over the break, read Beowulf and Frankenstein. Begin to read Pride and Prejudice. Handouts will be provided.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Greek Tragedy 
Presently there is a debate in education over the value of studying the humanities. What can you gain from the knowledge of history, literature or art from the distant past? Should schools and universities spend diminishing resources to teach students in the 21st century about events that happened thousands of years ago, or ask students to read the literature or philosophy of people who lived in that "dark backward and abysm of time" (Tempest 1.2) ?  To what purpose?

This is a photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson listening to a tape from his son-in-law, Marine Captain Charles Robb who was serving in Vietnam. In the tape, Robb is describing the deaths of American soldiers as Johnson collapses in anguish. The photo was taken by Jack Kightinger in 1968. This was the deadliest year of the war with 16,592 American soldiers killed. The high losses of American soldiers in the Tet Offensive in February and the moral depravity of the Mi Lai massacre in March of that year put mounting pressure on the American government to end the war. Johnson had already announced that America should take steps to limit the war in Vietnam and that he would not seek re-election. There were massive antiwar protests raging in the streets and on college campuses.

In the years before however, Johnson had been instrumental in escalating the war, believing that he needed to save Vietnam from the spread of communism and from falling under the power of the Soviet Union, a nuclear threat at the time to the United States.  But this was a war that Americans increasingly did not support, and American hegemony was unwelcome in Vietnam. 

The decision to wage war and sacrifice the lives of many is a brutal burden that our modern world has not erased. It is the decision that plagues Agamemnon in Euripides play, Iphigenia at Aulis, when Agamemnon must decide if he would sacrifice his own child in the war he is about to wage in Troy. His inconstancy of moral commitment is something that perhaps should not plague humankind, yet we are creatures who persevere in misguided truths. Knowing this is enlightenment. (See article on cognitive dissonance.)

Indeed, when Robert Kennedy ached to understand how he could announce the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968, Jacqueline Onassis advised him to turn to Greek tragedy.  He looked to Aeschylus' Agamemnon to find a character who, after sacrificing his child for political gain, returns home destroyed by grief at his own actions. (Link to speech.) Kennedy's words to a nation broken by racism included these powerful lines derived from this play: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Robert Kennedy would himself be dead in less than two months. In June of this violent year, on his way to winning the Democratic primary for the presidential election, he would become another victim of political assassination.

Presented in Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy are eternal themes: In Oedipus Rex, it is of finding the courage to face trauma and the disease that infects us when we do our best to bury heinous truths. In Oedipus at Colonus it is the excoriating path to finding forgiveness and reconciliation for self and others. In the Antigone, it is the struggle to understand what is right when what you are threatened with death for your beliefs. 

Perhaps more than any other genre of literature, the brilliant tragedies from ancient Greece provide catharsis for the suffering from error caused by our inability to see clearly where our choices will lead. They provide the means of understanding that through human frailty, we inadvertently cause others harm, and must live beyond our own sins and find atonement. Aristotle, in his Poetica makes the claim that art has the moral obligation to edify society and help us all live better lives. As Edith Hamilton, a famous translator of ancient Greek wrote, the literature inspires us "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world." These plays indeed provide ways to for us to heal the soul, and are as such perennially worth the effort to bring to students of all ages

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Four Summer Assignments for AP Literature and Composition:

Submit Your Essay To Turn It In By September 1. Go to and create an account. Please choose "student." The Class ID is 15555351 and the Class Enrollment Key is: CrossAP. The site will label late submissions.

Any plagiarized work will result in withdrawal from AP Literature and school disciplinary action.

To help prepare you to examine the essence of poetry, storytelling and analysis, we'd like you to read some key works of literature and write about them. The main goal in your writing is to find the message or human truth of the work, and then to explain how the artist crafts this truth through narrative or poetic techniques. All your work must be original. Do not use secondary sources for your essays.

Format your essays according to MLA standard guidelines. Please strive to properly format your Shakespeare and poetry citations. You will be able to rewrite the essays for a better grade during marking period one.

1) College Essay: Due July 1. Up to 650 words. See prompts for 2017-2018 on the blog.

2) Poetry Essay: Due July 15.  About 750 words. See prompt below.
Only write one: Choose either Chicago by Carl Sandburg OR the rites for Cousin Vit, by Gwendolyn Brooks.

3) Narrative Essay:  Julius Caesar: Due July 30. About 750 words. See prompts below.
See link on advice on how to cite Shakespeare.

4) Narrative Essay: Due August 15. About 750 words. See prompts below.
Choose either Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston OR The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Poetry Essay Tips and Prompt
One of the goals of AP Literature and Composition is to guide you to see the art at work in poetry and literature. For poetry, the critical essays you write will first explain the poem's purpose or meaning. Use your paragraphs to explain how the poet uses poetic and literary devices to intensify the poem's message.

The prompt below is derived from an AP Exam.  A good way to begin would be to thoroughly annotate the poem you choose. Be sure you clearly understand the meaning of each verse line, and find literary devices that work to make the poem powerful. Be sure your claim (thesis statement) clearly states what you think this “complex picture” is. Use adjectives to precisely describe the positives and negatives. Do not simply repeat the vague phrasing of the prompt question.  

Your essay should strive to eloquently incorporate quotes into your text and explain how literary or poetic tools in these quotes heighten the emotional content of the poem.  Poems of course, especially narrative poems, can incorporate literary tools, or elements of narrative fiction, such as plot elements and character development.

Follow link on how to eloquently blend poetry verse lines into your essay are on the blog. Figurative language includes: metaphor, simile, personification, apostrophe, symbol, irony, paradox, and hyperbole. Other devices are imagery, sound, syntax, form, perspective, meter, and more.

Be sure your essay has an introduction paragraph that includes the poet's name, the title of the poem, and a clear thesis statement. Your essay should have paragraphs with clear topic sentences. *Follow link to Poetry Terms and Definitions.

Poetry Essay Prompt: Write a well-organized essay in which you explain how the poet portrays a complex picture of his or her subject (use adjectives that describe the "good" and the "bad") through the use of perspective, figurative language, sound, imagery, form and other literary devices.

Narrative Essays Tips and Prompts
The purpose of any story -- even personal ones -- is to illustrate a life lesson or "human truth".  Can a righteous man protect his country from a tyrant? How can a sheltered young woman survive racism, sexism and tragedy?  Will the idealistic young man survive in a city of greed?

Read the works carefully. The prompts ask you to think about the story around a hook, but the the story’s main truth or message must be the center of your argument. Your essay should show how the author reveals a "human truth" or "meaning of the work as a whole" through the conflicts, actions and development of the main characters in the story from the beginning to the end.

Follow the link to this character assessment exercise to help you formulate an idea for your thesis statement. Since one novel might have many perspectives, different character might find different truths.  The main character, however, is your best bet for a thorough response.

Use the prompts below, which were chosen from previous AP exams. Be sure your introduction paragraph includes your thesis statement, which is the main message the story teaches, and the author's name and the title of the work, underlined. You must analyze the story to the end. What happens in the end is usually where you find "the meaning of the work as a whole".

Narrative Essay Prompts: Choose one of these for each essay you write.

  • 2007: In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present actions, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character’s relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. You may choose a work from the list below or another appropriate novel or play of similar literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.  

  • 2007B: Works of literature often depict acts of betrayal. Friends and even family may betray a protagonist; main characters may likewise be guilty of treachery or may betray their own values. Select a novel or play that includes such a betrayal.  Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the nature of the betrayal and show how it contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

  • 2010: Select a novel, play, or epic in which a character experiences a rift and becomes cut off from “home,” whether that home is the character’s birthplace, family, homeland, or other special place. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the character’s experience with exile is both alienating and enriching, and how this experience illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet 2.2)

About a month after the death of Michelangelo in 1564, Shakespeare was born, and the ideals of Renaissance humanism flowed from one creative genius to another. In this monologue from Hamlet, Shakespeare poignantly praises the wondrous power of humanity, matching Michelangelo's humanist portrayal in The Creation of Adam, where Adam and God float in almost the same plane.

Shakespeare's character Hamlet, however while acknowledging the infinite power and beauty of humankind, is suicidal and desperate, and cannot comprehend his own wretched state of existence. This astonishing play leaves 17th century Renaissance and catapults into 20th century anomie and moral relativism:  Hamlet declares sarcastically, "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," but in his tormented view, corruption has poisoned everything; he is suicidal and the world seems "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable." And while the notorious "To be or not to be" speech begins with a contemplation of suicide, it ends with questioning the very purpose of taking action, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/And thus the native hue and resolution /Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pitch and moment/ With this regard their currents turn awry /And lose the name of action."

As with most of Shakespeare's plays, the story from Hamlet had appeared in an earlier work, a simple revenge story called The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. In this play, a the wife of a man murdered by his brother marries the murderer while her son plots revenge by feigning madness. Shakespeare of course, has the reputation of taking your average popular story and turning  it into a staggering work of genius. From a standard story of a son's revenge, albeit with feigned madness as a ploy, Shakespeare incarnates a densely dysfunctional family whose darkest secrets will never be told. Indeed, Shakespeare eliminates not only the answers, but the questions. Hamlet is in despair, wishing his own flesh would dissolve, obsessed with his mother's sexuality and "incestuous" relationship with his uncle. He is haunted by the ghost of his dead father, whom he reveres and fears, feeling that he himself is a "rogue" and a "slave", a "dull and muddy-mettled rascal". Why can't he avenge his father? Why did his mother remarry so quickly? Why is he so deeply depressed?

As readers, we need to find the darker questions: Why is Hamlet so repulsed by female sexuality? Does Gertrude know that Claudius killed her husband? What are the "black and grained spots" on her soul? What truths does she refuse to uncover? What memories must Hamlet erase about his past life? What secret is it that he must never tell? Indeed, "the rest is silent" at the end of the play, as this story is buried with Hamlet. The psycho-sexual aspects of this play alone seem so shockingly modern. The story of a family torn by possible sexual abuse, suppressed memories, denial, emotional trauma, mental illness and tragic lack of validation for the victim is not only a work of genius in a time before modern psychology, but it is a courageous and astoundingly insightful narrative through which we might see in Hamlet's mirror our own dark traumas, perhaps come to understand the unspoken and denied secrets of ourselves and others, and as Hamlet pleas, uncover the poison within. In the play, these many dark secrets poison all of Denmark.  

For actors, English teachers, intellectuals and literary critics, touching Hamlet is a milestone of accomplishment. All literary critics must tackle this play, all actors strive to play this role, as soul sucking as it might be. Philosophers such as Nietzsche are drawn to him. Everyone wants to claim a bit of Hamlet. He has been described as an existentialist, a Buddhist, a Christian. He has been psychoanalyzed by Freud himself and others as being Oedipal. Lately, he has been diagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar. The play has been called a dark comedy. And, as Harold Bloom points out, someone who is reactionary, paranoid, angry, brooding, abusive and suicidal -- really is NOT a very nice person.  So why do we forgive him? Why is he so bewilderingly seductive and sympathetic? At the end of the play are our hearts with Horatio's as he watches this extraordinarily troubled young man die and cries,  "Goodnight, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Friday, March 10, 2017

From Enlightenment (1650-1789) to Romanticism (1789-1914)

Art is the Tree of LIFE.  SCIENCE is the Tree of Death.  

With these words the 18th century poet and fantastical artist William Blake helps to usher in the Romantic Era. Wordsworth would describe Blake as mad, and perhaps the entire 19th century could be considered “mad” as well with its break from rationalism and embrace of subjective reality, the Gothic and the spirit of the imagination.

The Age of Enlightenment rose up from the roots of the Renaissance: Isaac Newton is knighted and Rene Descartes declares, “Je pense, donc je suis.” Baruch Spinoza declares, “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.” Politically, Enlightenment ideology is firmly established after the Glorious Revolution in England, which gave Parliament authority over the sovereignty of monarchs. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke expound on human equality, on governments that serve the people, and declare that all people should have the agency of self-determination and freedoms of religion, speech and thought – the very ideals Jefferson declares so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence. But while the American Revolution and the establishment of a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" was perhaps the pinnacle of Enlightenment spirit, the bloodbath caused by the uprising of the peasantry in the French Revolution would mark an end to an idealization of human nature as something moved solely by intellect and order.  
And in fact, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a plea that the very democracy “of the people,” created in the optimism of Enlightenment ideology, should not “perish from this earth” as the horror and hypocrisy of slavery seriously challenges the righteous ideals of equality during the Civil War.

Many historians point to July 14, 1789 as the beginning of the Romantic era – of course it is fairly silly to pin an entire transformation of Western ideology on the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, as the French Revolution begins. Many factors are at play: The Industrial Revolution, which replaces feudal manors with factories; the spreading British Empire, which brings new ideas – and opium – from the Far East; the continued prosperity and rise of the middle class with an increasingly global mercantile exchange; the global displacement of people whose roots once went back centuries in the same land; the questioning of objective reality. The philosopher Immanuel Kant proposes that our own perceptions shape our reality; the famous German writer, poet and philosopher Goethe re-examines the story of Faust, questioning if human passions should be tamed by rationalism. Later in the 19th century, the philosopher Nietzsche will ask the same questions. Indeed, the qualities of human greed and lust, the corruption of power, and the ultimate failure of philosophy and rationalism are predicted in Voltaire’s famous Enlightenment satire, Candide, which is wryly subtitled Optimism.

In America, socials movements that include free love societies, the Transcendentalists, religious revivals, the abolition movement, the brutal institution of slavery – and a brutally bloody Civil War to end it – shape the passion of Romanticism. The expansive and often brutal wilderness of the West is conquered through further bloodshed in the Indian Wars. God is equated with nature, and the powerful, indifferent and unpredictable forces of nature mirror our own.

The elements that define all historical movements can be seen everywhere. They infuse the arts of the era as well. In class, we compared neoclassical music and paintings to those of the Romantic era, and examined the differences between odes: Thomas Gray’s Ode to the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes and John Keats’ To Autumn. We will be reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which incorporates both Enlightenment and Romantic ideology, and Mary Shelley’s astounding masterpiece, Frankenstein. Students are also at work on a Romantic poetry research paper, due at the end of February.

From the perspective of the Romantic era, personal experience and subjective reality eclipse a notion of objective truth. There is an idealization of peasants and common people, and a hearkening back to the mysticism present in medieval times. Indeed the name “Romantic” is a derivation of medieval romances, the stories of knights on quests to discover spiritual truths. Movements against social injustices caused by slavery, colonialism and industrialization gain traction, and moral relativism takes a stand in works such as Huckleberry Finn, as Huck questions and opposes a law that declares that a black man is property. The nature of evil is questioned as Gothic works such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights and the works of Edgar Allen Poe create monsters and ghosts that reveal dark psychological desires within. Passion trumps rationalism, people seek to extend their reality through impassioned religious practices, now including Hindu and Buddhism, or through use of opium. And all this during a time also known as the Victorian Era, which often has a veneer of being prim and stuffy. But appearances are often deceptive.