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The Visionary Mode in Modern American Literature

ENGL 084.601
instructor(s):
M 6-8:40

At its most basic, this course attempts to take the measure of Whitman's song as it reverberates throughout American literature of the first half of the 20th century. But its most pressing concerns will be to introduce students to modernism and its aesthetic, cultural, and social discontents. To do so, we shall focus on some of modern America's most unruly writers as they sound their most untranslatable texts: the Williams of Spring and All, the Steinbeck of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Crane's White Buildings and The Bridge, Toomer's Cane, Miller's Tropic of Capricorn, Patchen's Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, and Mumford's The Conduct of Life. Noisy, stubborn, and self-indulgent, these artists are obsessed with extending reality rather than merely defining or apprehending it. In this sense, then, they are the "crazies" of modern American literature, people who see, hear, and feel things that others do not. Their visionary mode, closely linked with mysticism, mingles terror, omniscience, and ecstasy with a sense of absolute experience and freedom from relativism and moral categories. Often offensive in their preachiness, these writers depended upon inspiration and, as opposed to the predominant modern modes of restraint and irony, on excess and sentimentality. Thus, they are agents rather than makers, poets who do not craft poems but rather utter them. Similarly, their literature, more concerned with truth than beauty, with what to do than with what to think, is less a well-wrought thing than a secular scripture offering access too some essential "reality". for all its eccentricities, however, I believe the visionary mode strikes close to a basic quality in American thought, character, and literature. In this intensification of the usual American modernism, in these strange secular mystics with their "holy" books, we can glimpse - in its purest form - the New Man in the Garden, self-reliant, creating a new world. Students will be asked to write numerous short "opinion" papers and to sit for a comprehensive final exam.