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Realism, Modernism, and the Visual Image

ENGL 283.920
instructor(s):
MW 4:30-7:10

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the popularization of art museums, illustrated magazines, and photography have placed American literature in a rich and complicated relationship with visual media. This interdisciplinary course will explore intersections between literature, painting, and photography in America from the 1860s through the first half of this century. Our concern throughout will be the literary nature of perception: how visual images influence the representation of narrative, space, and consciousness in literature, and, reciprocally, how language determines the reception, meaning, and use of visual images (including the slippery status of photography as a form of artistic representation). Our examination of these issues in an American context will reveal the cross-pollination of aesthetic concerns about impressionism, abstraction, technology, and chance, with social and political issues like immigration, capitalism, and industrialization. We will begin by establishing some theoretical ground for interpreting words and images, through readings of Sontag, Barthes, Berger, and Trachtenberg. The second unit of the course will turn to representations of the Civil War, the city, and women in works of American realism and naturalism by Whitman, Crane, Norris, and Wharton; in realist and impressionist paintings by Eakins, Homer, Cassatt, Sargent, and the Ashcan School; and in photographs by Brady, Gardner, Riis, Hine, Kasebier, and Stieglitz. The third unit of the course will examine painterly and photographic dimensions of literary modernism: artistic tourism in James's Italian stories, Stein's and Faulkner's uses of cubism, Williams's settings of Brueghel, and "photographic" poems by Bishop and Moore. The course will end with a study of two documentary collaborations between writers and photographers: James Agee and Walker Evans; and Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange. Requirements include a class presentation, a short paper, and a term paper. We will plan a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.