Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Masterpieces and Mass Culture

ENGL 251.401
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Pre-1900 Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major

 

Because 19th-century modernization swelled the reading public to an unprecedented size, authors and readers became increasingly concerned with literature’'s power to educate, entertain, enlighten, and mobilize the masses.  At the same time, the distinction between high art and popular literature grew increasingly sharp.  While some writers aimed to reach as wide a public as possible, many were very ambivalent about popularity; success with the masses might translate into money and influence, but it could also call into question the writer’'s status as a serious artist.  In this course, we'’ll look at how 19th-century American and British novels, poems, short stories, essays, and memoirs represent the division between high art and mass culture, while also considering the cultural status of the works themselves.  We'’ll ask: What is a masterpiece?  Who decides?  Does mass appreciation disqualify a work for masterpiece status?  How have the terms of literary and aesthetic value shifted from the 19th century to our own times?  Readings may include works by James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Stephen Crane, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and H.G. Wells.
 
Requirements: two short papers, one in-class presentation, and a final research paper.