Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Philadelphia Fire: Art and Politics in America, from the Declaration of Independence to the MOVE Bombing

ENGL 486.640
Tuesdays 5:30-8:30 pm

Philadelphia has always been one of the artistic and political centers of
the United States. In fact, the history of Philadelphia is a
representative history of the relation between art and politics in American
life more generally. The purpose of this course is to take advantage
of our presence in Philadelphia to explore the history of this relation in
context.  We’ll study important American works of art (chiefly
literary works, but we’ll also be open to painting, music, architecture,
and film) that have a fundamental connection to the city and, moreover, can
also teach us something about art’s shifting relation to politics, from the
Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote here in 1776, to John
Edgar Wideman’s novel about the city’s deadly 1985 bombing of the MOVE
headquarters in West Philadelphia. Other figures of interest will
include the ubiquitous Benjamin Franklin, the great abolitionist Lucretia
Mott, writers Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman,
painters Charles Willson Peale and Thomas Eakins, musicians Marian Anderson
and John Coltrane, city planner Edmund Bacon, and filmmakers George Cukor
and Jonathan Demme.  In addition, we will read selected key works of
aesthetic and political theory, ranging from Plato to Kant to Adorno, to
help us discuss and debate the merits of the question: What is political
about art, and what is artistic about politics? When possible, we’ll
fan out from the classroom, sometimes visiting together a particular site
(such as the Library Company of Philadelphia, or the Eastern State
Penitentiary).  More often, you will be asked to venture out on your
own, in order to pursue an assignment or independent research topic.
For some students, this will be an opportunity to do some original archival
work. For others, it will be a chance to learn more about how
present-day Philadelphia and its citizens commemorate and erase certain
aspects of the city’s long, rich, and conflict-laden history.
Requirements will include several very short essays, an in-class
presentation, and a longer final project.

fulfills requirements
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major