Readings in 19th Century American Literature and Culture (Post-1800)

L632 — Fall 2021

Jennifer Fleissner
Days and Times
7:00p - 8:15p TR
Course Description

Topic: Realism, Romance, and American Modernity, 1880-1920

This course looks at the emergence of both new realist modes and a "revival of romance" in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century writing as modes of response to the emergence of American modernity. Here I use the word "modernity" not in its more capacious sense as that which is commonly opposed to the ancient, on the one hand, or the medieval, on the other, but in the more specifically nineteenth-century usage employed in a book like Robert Pippin's Modernism as a Philosophical Problem.  For Pippin as for others such as Fredric Jameson, the turn into the twentieth century marked a crucial high-water mark of disenchantment with earlier notions of modernity as the triumph of rationality and progress, a critique evidenced in the philosophical writings of Nietzsche, Freud, and Max Weber, among others, but also in literary work that often either critically depicted the era's capitalism, racism, and nascent bureaucracy or, in reaction against these, worked to reinstate older, premodern frames.  At the same time, however, other observers, sometimes writing with changes in women's lives in mind, envisioned utopian features within the era's modernity itself.

Similarities between our own present and the period in question have often been marked in recent years, as it has been argued we are living through a "new Gilded Age."  Beyond the fact of similar levels of income inequality, however, many features characterizing the years around 1900 echo our own time, as we see here debates over slavery's long shadow, rising levels of immigration, a burgeoning consumer culture, technology, a perceived surfeit of information and new media, feminism, and so on.  The writers we will consider—such as Charles W. Chesnutt, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, Zitkala-Sa, Mark Twain, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Theodore Dreiser, and Kate Chopin—often addressed themselves to these phenomena very directly, yet in a wide range of ways.  Recent scholarship has also seen a renewed interest in a number of key thinkers from this period (such as William James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Gabriel Tarde, and Alfred North Whitehead) as forerunners to various contemporary theoretical movements, including new materialism, Afro-pessimism, neopragmatism, and actor-network theory.

Alongside our examination of this literature within its cultural and intellectual-historical context, then, we will also consider ways in which contemporary critical treatments of it have also taken up what might be termed different generic positions with respect to the subject at hand.  The class will thus afford students an opportunity to think about their own practice as scholars in its more literary or philosophical dimension.

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