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Ugly Feelings and the Modernist Novel

ENGL 200.303
TR 1:30-3:00
fulfills requirements:
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major

Concepts like “privilege” and “liberal guilt” are frequent but touchy facets of contemporary cultural politics. Their ability to bring constructive conversations to a halt or a fever pitch encourages us to develop broader frameworks for their analysis. This course will examine the ways in which novelists use narrative fiction to represent and examine “ugly” feelings including but not limited to guilt, shame, anger, spite, self-righteousness, egotism, or despair as well as the historical contexts and sociopolitical dynamics that generate them. How do we connect these unsavory subjective feelings—or unsavory perceptions of them in others—to productive insights about the larger social, political, and cultural issues of a given historical moment? What is the relationship between feelings, on the hand, and ideas and practice, on the other? What kinds of ethical and political conundrums do these feelings help us to perceive? And how do aesthetic objects—specifically, in this case, different forms of literary prose narrative—help us to capture and think through such dilemmas in ways that non-aesthetic objects can’t? We will pursue these questions through a focus on a set of novels from the early 20th century, which serve as a rich archive for examining ugly feelings pertaining to phenomena such as urbanization, colonialism, war, racial passing, expatriation, and geographic migration—all inflected by historically specific understandings of class, race, sex, gender, and sexuality, religion, and disability. Likely authors include Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Nella Larsen, and Jean Rhys.


The Junior Research Seminar is designed to involve students in forms and practices of literary research that include working with primary sources and archival materials; reviewing existing criticism; using online databases of historical newspapers, periodicals, and other cultural materials; exploring relevant contexts in literary, linguistic, and cultural history; studying the etymological history and changing meanings of words; experimenting with new methods of computational analysis of texts; and other methodologies. For their final projects, students will write a research paper of 10-15 pages or do a creative project and may engage either with course texts or with other, more contemporary material. They might attempt to trace the historical roots of socially or individually embodied ugly feelings, to examine the ways a particular form of narrative aims to generate or must depend upon certain feelings in its audience, or to speculate on how some political, ethical, or social impasse that ugly feelings create might be overcome (or perhaps why we should not seek to overcome such an impasse at all).