June 12, 2024

Literature Course a Matter of Life and Death – and Purpose

A UMW course called Literature of Death and Purpose has students exploring prose and poetry grappling with grief, loss and life’s meaning. Photo by Annabelle Shuler.

A UMW course called Literature of Death and Purpose has students exploring prose and poetry grappling with grief, loss and life’s meaning. Photo by Annabelle Shuler.

Shelley Nguyen hasn’t landed on a career choice yet, but she’s already contemplating what kind of legacy she wants to leave.

“It’s important to think about how I want to live my life,” said Nguyen, a University of Mary Washington sophomore and international affairs major who spends a few minutes each morning jotting down notes in a gratitude journal. “I’m glad I’m already figuring these things out.”

She began to think along those lines during one of her first courses at Mary Washington: Literature of Death and Purpose. Introduced right before COVID hit in spring of 2020, the timely class covers two millennia of prose and poetry grappling with grief, loss and life’s meaning. In addition to literary analysis, students write letters to their 80-year-old selves, practice connecting with strangers, visit cemeteries and take photos to illustrate what brings them joy. Projects like these have helped them process the pandemic and reflect on what the late poet Mary Oliver – whose work “The Summer Day” made it onto the syllabus – called their “one wild and precious life.”

Conceived and taught by Professor of English Marie McAllister, whose research explores the intersection of literature and medicine as well as 18th-century works, the class was originally meant to focus on health. But, as she began developing it three years ago, McAllister found many pieces that wrestled with death, illness, pain and suffering.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty bleak,’” she said, “but much of what has been written about death is actually about how to live our best life while we still can.” Read more.