Let's call the course Snow Lit 101.
We could draw on writings of the past, along with our personal experiences from Washington's Blizzard of 2003 -- and observations of the way that deep snow changes everything -- to better understand the relationship between literature and real life.
Through incisive readings, we might come to understand how snowfall provides, in stories and in life, a quiet overlay that filters out silly concerns and allows us to concentrate on more important things.
"Snow posits situations for both thoughtfulness and intrigue," explains Aimee Wiest, a visiting professor of literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who was snowed in by the blizzard yesterday at her home in Lewes, Del. She was catching up on her reading.
"To have an entire world change by unique flakes," she says, "becomes a great incentive" for writers to use snow as a setting.
Surrounded -- and bound in -- by snow, life becomes a leaner, cleaner story in slow motion. Like a birth or a war or a love affair or a death, a debilitating snowstorm stops us cold and forces us to confront existence.
"The snow is menacing and, at the same time, romantic," says Washington writer Howard Norman, who also was snowed in.
In Snow Lit, each of us would become, as Henry David Thoreau writes in "Walden," "a self-appointed inspector of snow-storms," not so much in a meteorological way, but in a metaphysical way. How does snow change us?
Through an examination of snowy prose and poetry -- and the recurring motif of heavy accumulation as dramatic device -- participants could explore the central themes of humanity, such as hope, despair, alienation and the indomitability of the spirit in the face of heavy, enervating drifts, banks and blinding flakes.
Some of the most memorable works of fiction -- from "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte to "The Shining" by Stephen King and "The Ice Storm" by Rick Moody -- have been set against snowy backdrops. Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes of magical snow in his stories.
Snow is important to Toni Morrison. Sigrid Undset's brooding sagas, set in shivery Norway, are strewn with sleighs and skis. So many of the Russian masterpieces are knee-deep in snow.
"It snowed and snowed, the whole world over," writes Boris Pasternak in his 1958 epic "Doctor Zhivago." "Snow swept the world from end to end."
American poets have used snow as a window into other worlds.
To John Greenleaf Whittier, snow was a sledding slope back to his own childhood. In his 1866 "Snow-bound: A Winter Idyll," Whittier tries nostalgically to relive the snows of yesteryear:
What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth-fire's ruddy glow.
For Ralph Waldo Emerson, snow was alive and story-filled. He once told of sitting in a church, trying to listen to a sermon, only to be distracted by the icy rage outside. "A snowstorm was falling around us. The snowstorm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow." He writes of the white stuff in several poems, including his 1841 "The Snow-Storm."
As Emily Dickinson points out in one poem, the frozen delicacy covers everything equally -- like death:
It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow speaks of deeper, deeper, deeper snow in "Hiawatha." And Robert Frost writes of stopping by woods on one particularly snowy evening.
In literature, as in life, snow separates, reunites, cripples, eases, alters and destroys those it touches. It is a gift of nature to some; a demon to others.
American prose is an avalanche of snow. Ernest Hemingway, a master of wintry fiction, gave credit to the snow for three of his short stories: "The Killers," "Ten Indians" and "Today Is Friday." He says he wrote them one afternoon in Madrid when a bullfight was snowed out and he was confined to his hotel.
There is good reason for Herman Melville to describe Moby-Dick as having a hump like a snow-hill. And Willa Cather, in her 1922 novel "One of Ours," writes of windows "so plastered with snow that they were opaque."
Richard Wright uses snow to illustrate struggle in his 1940 "Native Son": "He lowered his head against the driving snow and tramped through the icy streets with clenched fists."
Jack London's "Call of the Wild" and life-crushing "To Build a Fire" are packed with ice and snow.
One of the loveliest tales in contemporary fiction, David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars," is set in a cold, eerie Pacific Northwest landscape. The novel, about interracial love and the savageries of war, is all the more powerful because it takes place on an island, in a sort of Puget Sound snow globe.
In an interview with iVillage, an online community, Guterson says that he wrote the novel as a way to address the question: In a universe so indifferent to our fate, how best to endure, to go on?
The snowstorm and the war and the love story and the criminal trial, he says, "are in fact merely the tools I use in order to explore this basic question."
There are times, and this may be one of them, when nothing so well represents the apparent indifference of nature -- to writers and the rest of us -- as a vast, sweeping, school-shutting, car-hobbling, city-burying three-day snow. Such a snow is also a gift -- haunting and beautiful and quieting and humbling.
In either case, nothing brings us hope like the thaw.