This course will examine the emergence of high literary culture in the United States, as it defined itself through and against mass culture and race. Taking a cue from Walter Benjamin's recently published Arcades Project, the seminar will explore American literature through the lens of distinctive features of nineteenth-century modernity, including museums, exhibitions, hotels, slums, and such new and often worrisome phenomena ("impudent novelties," to borrow Henry James's phrase) as the public woman, the Negro citizen, the mass-produced commodity, and newly recognized varieties of human consciousness. At the heart of the course, then, is a historical moment in which authors' drive for literary mastery and cultural distinction ran into the "impudent novelties" of an emergent capitalist culture. Our aim will be to develop both rich readings of literary texts as well as an informed understanding of cultural contexts.
Primary texts will include works by Henry James, W. E. B. DuBois, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton, Charles Chesnutt, Stephen Crane, Pauline Hopkins, and Theodore Dreiser. We will venture to read selections from The Arcades Project as well as other texts by such theorists as Pierre Bourdieu, Donna Haraway, and Tony Bennett. Course requirements will include a written class presentation and a longer research paper.