Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Nineteenth-Century New York City and American Modernity

ENGL 352.301
instructor(s):
TR 1:30-3
Benn 323
fulfills requirements:
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Pre-1900 Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major

This seminar will examine the concept of "modernity" by examining the way nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors wrote about New York City. Because New York City was the site whre the forces of modernity made their earliest and most concentrated appearance in America, it will be a focal point for exploring crucial changes in American literature, culture, and social life. We will be paying attention to changes in interiority and feeling (the experience of walking city streets, the desire to go shopping, new sensations in speed, time, and place, new forms of social belonging) as well as examining profound changes in large social sytems (global immigration and travel, the emergence of mass culture, the redefining of kinship and family, the importance of ethnic and sexual subcultures). Did the emerging urban world represent alienation or a depletion of human experience, or did it open up possibilities for greater freedom and new kinds of social solidarity? Is modern life good for human beings, or does it unleash forces that are ultimately destructive? These questions gained sharp urgency for many artists and intellectuals of this period and stimulated a range of new literary styles and critical thought.

The syllabus will include some historical and sociological texts on the category of modernity (Simmel, Weber, Giddens). Literary works  will probably include: Poe stories; Whitman, Leaves of Grass; Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener";  Jose Marti, from Our America; Dreiser, Sister Carrie; Yezierska, Bread Givers; Crane, New York sketches; Wharton, Twilight Sleep; Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. A field trip or optional research trip to New York may be part of the course.