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The Politics of Mourning and Memory in American Literature and Culture

ENGL 383.301
instructor(s):
W 2-5:00

The experience of 9/11 has shown us how public trauma and personal grief can be used for varied--and often conflicting--political ends. This course explores the intersections of private expressions of loss and national occasions of mourning in recent American literature and culture. Starting with nineteenth-century precedents, our readings center on responses to World War II, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS epidemic. We will ask how memorializing the dead may contribute to a sense of national or communal belonging or to a sense of alienation. We will raise ethical questions about why some losses are mourned while others remain invisible to the public view. We will explore the centrality of historical memory to this process, how representations of loss involve wrestling with, reconstructing, and even forgetting competing version of the past. The literature will be framed by theoretical discussions about psychoanalysis, sentimentalism, trauma, and nationalism, and will be supplemented by debates about specific public memorials, such as the Vietnam War Memorial, the Holocaust Museum the AIDS Quilt, and current plans for the World Trade Center. In addition to novels, we will examine film, poetry, memoir, and drama by U.S. artists and others from among the following: Bobbie Ann Mason, Tim O'Brien, Nguyen Khai, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Kogawa, Toni Morrison, Art Spiegleman, Mark Doty, Tony Kushner, Primo Levi, W.G. Sebald, Ariel Dorfman and Anne Michaels.