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London and Literature

ENGL 247.301
MW 3:30-5

When the English author Peter Ackroyd published his magisterial 2000 study London: The Biography, he effectively announced that as far as he is concerned, London is a living, breathing entity, one that must be understood as such if it is to be properly appreciated and genuinely known. The idea contained within Ackroyd's subtitle, that it is neither possible nor desirable simply to write a history of London, to treat that great metropolis as if it were an inanimate and static thing, will anchor our study of London and literature. We tend to think of London as a literary setting, a place where authors have for centuries gathered to write, as well as a backdrop for their poems, plays, and stories. But London, as its most astute and sensitive chroniclers have instinctively understood, is more than a setting and a scene: It is also very much a literary character in its own right, one whose place in English letters is as vibrant and varied as it is old. This course will take a chronological look at London's literary life, charting its progress from Renaissance drama to Augustan poetry and prose, through the Romantic period, and onward to the narrative experiments of Victorian, modernist, and postmodernist authors.

Along the way we will see London assume the guises of moral allegory and inspirational muse, stable home and criminal den, refined cultural center and uproarious multicultural accident, victim of violence and promoter of pacifism. At every point, we will examine how writers' representations of London both build on prior representations and influence subsequent ones, studying, in effect, the evolutions--and, perhaps, devolutions--of London's literary character over time.

Readings will include poetry by Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, William Blake, and Matthew Arnold; stories by Arthur Conan Doyle; Ben Jonson's play Bartholomew Fair; and a number of more or less fictional longer prose works. These will include Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear, George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, and Ian McEwan's Saturday. We will, of course, also peruse Ackroyd's biography of London.

Requirements: regular attendance, weekly weblog postings, two formal papers, and an in-class presentation.