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"Facts into Art": Literary Uses of the Self and Society

ENGL 476.601
T 4:30-7:10

In this seminar we shall study the creative methods by which "facts"-- autobiographical and historical-- are made literature. (And discuss from the outset why facts is in quotation marks.) Employing a variety of critical approaches, we shall discuss each work independently, as a model of its kind; compare the text with reliable sources in personal experience and/or public events; and attempt to interpret the difference artistically. Among the works to be studied are selected portions of James Boswell's private journal and their adoption in the biography (1791) of his friend, the renowned writer Samuel Johnson; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with readings in Joyces biography and Irish history; Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, and her autobiographical memoir, "A Sketch of the Past"; Theodor Dreiser, An American Tragedy, and newspaper accounts of the notorious murder in which the novel was based (the manuscripts and proofs are held at Van Pelt Library); Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, and Adam Hochschild, "Mr. Kurz, I Presume"(The New Yorker); and Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. Students will write six to eight-page reports on the assignments for presentation at the seminar. The curriculum is designed to stimulate and guide students in an independent, imaginative project. For half the semester they will keep a private journal (I shall not read it) interweaving personal activities and meditation with notes and newspaper clippings of public events that interest or affect them particularly. The proportion of public and private is up to the student. These materials will be the source of a brief biography or work of fiction ten or twelve pages in length, to be submitted, together with relevant clippings, by the end of the semester. There will be one examination approximately at mid-term.