This class examines how American writers in the first half of the twentieth century interrogate societal boundaries, alternately overturning and reinforcing readers’ assumptions about class, race, gender, geography, leisure, privacy, and surveillance. At its heart is writers’ recognition that the question “Who has the right to look at whom?” is an open one.
This course introduces students to the ways modernist literature challenges traditional narrative literature (and traditional ways of looking at others). We will examine how authors respond to each other and to the wider culture around them. We will explore competing versions of the city, the suburb, the small town, Hollywood, the Dust Bowl, the South, Middle America, Depression America. What happens when writers examine small town folk and find not heartland clichés, but individuals with anxieties and secrets? Or when writers reuse famous photographs in ways that reveal the prejudices underlying their creation? Or when California becomes the place where people go not to fulfill their dreams, but to die?
This class will help students to sharpen their critical approaches to complex material. We will analyze changes in form and narrative style in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including the use of multiple narrators, nonlinear storylines, connections between form and psychoanalysis, and photo-textual and textual-graphic hybrids. Readings may include works by Sherwood Anderson, Jean Toomer, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, Zora Neale Hurston, Archibald MacLeish, Nathanael West, Richard Wright, and James Agee and Walker Evans, among others. Literary works will be contextualized alongside newsreels, social documentary nonfiction, journalism, and films. Assignments will include two papers and short written responses.