Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Growing Up, Growing Old: The Literature of Youth and Age

ENGL 486.940
W 6-9:10

This course will use memoirs, short stories, poems, plays, films and ethnographic material from the 19th and 20th centuries to explore two critical stages of human development: coming of age and coming into age. Some texts will show the protagonist’s successful growth into intellectual and spiritual autonomy. Others will reveal ways in which young and old are coerced or challenged by the constraints of family and society. We’ll begin with two 19th century memoirs: Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood, then continue with a pair from the 20th century, This Boy’s Life and The Duke of Deception, by Tobias Wolff and Geoffrey Wolff respectively, two brothers raised apart. We’ll also read two classics of African-American autobiography, Lorene Cary’s Black Ice and Brent Staple’s Parallel Time. From the growing body of ethnographic literature on aging, we’ll read Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days, (aging in a southern California Jewish community) Ronald Blythe’s The View in Winter (aging in a traditional English village) and selections from Studs Terkel. The selections from fiction include stories by James Joyce, Henry James, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick. We’ll conclude by reading Chekov’s Uncle Vanya and Shakespeare’s King Lear, and watch film versions of each. Writing for the course will include frequent brief response papers, an ethnographic piece and a longer final paper written on a text not included in the syllabus.