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A Precipitous Edge: The Hero in Modern American Life and Literature

ENGL 284.601
instructor(s):
W 6-9:10

The subject of this course is modernization and modernism in America, but its concern is for the problems that such related modes of life and art pose to the possibility of heroism. As meaningfulness in life and meaning in art become more and more elusive, can one still hope to act meaningfully? As the belief in collective identity and destiny is less and less available, can one still retain a sense of the good and the capacity to act on it? Under the sign of modernity, heroism would seem to be at best, as William James concludes, "always on a precipitous edge, and only keeps alive by running. Every moment is an escape." What are we to make of so diminished a thing?

In order to figure out what has become of our heroes (and whether or not we should care), we shall read excerpts from Emma Goldman's autobiography Living My Life, e. e. cummings's The Enormous Room, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete, Kenneth Patchen's The Journal of Albion Moonlight, and Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

To guide us on our way, we shall also read several essays, among them, Baudelaire's "The Hero in Modern Life," T. S. Eliot's "Hamlet," Irving Howe's "The Idea of the Modern," Harold Rosenberg's "Resurrected Romans," and Simone Weil's "The Iliad or the Poem of Force," as well as look at several films: the movie version of Hammett's novel, Casablanca, Angels with Dirty Faces, Stella Dallas, and On the Waterfront.

We shall conclude the course by reading Thomas McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend, to my mind the most heroic (and certainly most neglected) modern American long poem, which in its 329-pages reconnoiters the troubled cultural and historical landscape of our previous readings in order to find out where we might have gone wrong.