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The 'Social Self' in US Literature 1880-1920

ENGL 583.301
T 9-12


The period 1880-1920 produced American realism and naturalism as well as a number of other significant developments in US literary cultures, including the consolidation of a black public sphere, the origins of American pragmatism, and intertribal projects to cultivate Native American literature and criticism in English. This course will offer an advanced survey these developments, all of which might be said to explore different versions of the “social self” (William James’s term)––that is, alternatives to the “modern self” of Lockean theory and Atlantic republicanism (implicitly modeled after a yeoman or small freeholder), a model that no longer seemed to match a world of consumer capitalism, imperial expansion, feminism, and post-Reconstruction politics. Following economic historian James Livingston, our working premise will be that literary writers of this period were among the first to give shape to emergent forms of (post)modern selfhood.

Some of the most interesting recent scholarship on this period has turned on a set of questions about selfhood that emerged with new urgency in the turn-of-the-century era. 1.What is the relation between people and things? We will take up recent work in “thing theory,” especially as it is relevant to realism and pragmatism.  2. What is the difference between human beings and animals? We will examine the materialist thought in naturalism and Native American writers. 3. What is the difference between one’s self and one’s body? Recent interest in the relation of literature and science has addressed the way attention to embodiment shaped literary expression. If there is time, we may include the way early cinema mediated ideas about a “social self.”


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