2014-2015 Literature Courses
Like Walter Benjamin’s image of the angel of history, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein plunges forward into the future while looking back—anxiously? longingly?—toward the past. This course takes Shelley’s 1818 novel as its core text for an investigation into writing as an activity as troubled by mythic origins as it is fired by utopian dreams. We examine what Mary Shelley was reading in the year before she wrote her most famous work, tracing the influence of literary ancestors such as Milton and Rousseau, as well as her scandalous real-life parents: the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the anarchist William Godwin. We join the party at Lake Geneva, with Percy “Victor” Shelley, Claire Clairmont, “mad, bad” Lord Byron, and Byron’s unfortunate personal doctor John Polidori on the night that Mary Shelley first conceived of her “hideous progeny” (and Dr. Polidori initiated the first vampire story in English). In the final section of the course, we pursue the fabulous afterlife of Frankenstein in works by Herman Melville, Angela Carter, and others. Possible topics of discussion: paradises lost and imagined; Europe post-Napoleon; old gods, new Eves; the Gothic villain; paranoia; confession and autobiography; the ghost in the machine; Darwin, vampires, prosthetic bodies, and the sublime; the past and future of Romanticism; posthumanism...and other monstrosities yet to be imagined.
Watchers of the Skies: Science Fiction from the Middle Ages to the Postmodern
Science fiction. Literature. We often think of these two categories as fundamentally separate, even if the occasional author may seem to cross over from one to the other. But the main theme of this course will be that the best of “genre” science fiction takes up the same questions that great literature has always taken up. What does it mean to be human? What is our place in the universe? What do life and death mean—biologically, spiritually, or otherwise? In fact, science fiction seems much better equipped to examine some of the newer problems that human beings have had to face; for example: What does it mean and what comes next now that we have the power to change our environment irreversibly and on a massive scale? Or now that we have the power to tamper with and even eradicate our own species? Our method in this course will be to read some of the classic works of genre science fiction alongside more canonical or “mainstream” literary texts in search of possible points of contact—literary texts including but not limited to medieval romance, Romantic lyric poetry, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the 20th-century short story, and the postmodern novel. Although we will not be reading widely in SF’s sister genres in speculative fiction—fantasy, horror, etc.—we will spend quite a bit of time discussing the relationship(s) between all of these genres and “the literary” as manifested, for instance, in the phenomenon of magic realism, as well as in contemporary “slipstream” movements that blur the boundaries dividing the genres from the mainstream. Authors to be considered include H. G. Wells, Borges, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jonathan Lethem, China Miéville, Junot Díaz, and Sarah Lawrence’s own alumna Alice Sheldon or “James Tiptree, Jr.,” among others. As the course will emphasize the major role that science fiction has played in the proliferating media of the last century, we will also take some time to consider SF film (including Ridley Scott's Blade Runner), television (such as The Twilight Zone), and even rock opera. After all, the scope of SF aims to be as wide as the universe.
Gods and Monsters: Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon World
Hwaet! So begins Beowulf, the story of a group of Swedish warriors battling monsters in Denmark that has been claimed as the English national epic. Although the poem was largely unknown for several centuries following its composition in the early Middle Ages, its 20th-century aficionados—from J. R. R. Tolkien to Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney—helped to popularize the poem for a modern audience. In this course, we will examine the poem in relation to its original historical and cultural contexts in Anglo-Saxon England but also trace its enduring legacy in contemporary literary and popular culture. For example, we will spend some time comparing the different approaches to translation adopted by Tolkien, Heaney, and others, as well as analyzing the enduring popularity of Beowulf and his monstrous nemesis Grendel in film, comic books, and music. Moreover, although Beowulf is the longest and most famous poem still extant from Anglo-Saxon England, it is far from the only one; and this course will also, through modern translations, introduce you to the great breadth of Old English poetry. In order to gain an appreciation of the diversity and depth of this early medieval poetic corpus, we will read a selection of other heroic poems, riddles, elegies, saints’ lives, dream visions, and more. Above all, you will come away from the course with a better understanding of the earliest beginnings of both English poetry and the unlikely language that would go on from being spoken by a handful of wandering Germanic tribes to conquer the world.
Sex, Love, and Flatulence: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer has been revered as “the Father of English Poetry” for the last six centuries; and in this course, we will read his major work, the Canterbury Tales, in its entirety. Dryden famously praised Chaucer’s cast of pilgrim tale-tellers as encompassing all possible human personalities, and other critics have celebrated Chaucer’s panoramic view of human life and experience: “Here is God’s plenty.” But despite this praise for Chaucer’s universality, the time in which he lived was very different from our own. This course will begin to acquaint you with the alien world that is the late Middle Ages, and you will gain a strong command of both the Middle English language and the intricacies of literary production in a manuscript culture predating the printing press. Selected supplementary readings will help situate Chaucer in the various historical and literary contexts that (supposedly) birthed English poetry. Reading Chaucer will also help us address some of the most pressing questions in literary studies today. For example, did English poetry really begin with a fart joke? On the one hand, Chaucer’s poems take up the highest of high themes like love and war, fate and predestination, human justice and God's providence. At the same time, Chaucer also demonstrates a penchant for humor involving flatulence and exposed hindquarters; more sinisterly, his Tales include multiple examples of a genre that we might today call the “rape joke.” Thus, Dryden’s claim that all human life is represented in The Canterbury Tales will frame our discussions of various issues related to gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. As we journey towards Canterbury with Chaucer’s pilgrims, we will nevertheless have to ask what realms of human experience might even this timeless cornucopia of “God's plenty” leave out, and what the implications of those omissions might be.
Medieval Sci-Fi? Medieval Science and Medieval Fiction
In spite of our growing understanding of the intellectual sophistication of medieval science and technology, in many popular cultural representations the Middle Ages remains a period associated with darkness and ignorance, especially in scientific matters. But medieval science had ready answers to many of the ageless questions that humans have asked about their physical environment. For instance, the Middle English “textbook” known as the Lucydarye poses and answers questions such as the following: Why is the ocean salty? How can we explain the changing phases of the moon? “Howe farre is it to walke frome hence unto paradise and from hence into hell?” This course will explore some of the medieval precursors to modern experimental science but with special reference to how these protoscientific discourses influenced medieval literary texts, including those by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. We will see how mainstream medieval disciplines that modernity rejects as pseudoscience—astrology, alchemy, dream theory, and so on—in fact relied heavily on complex mathematical models and frequent experimentation and verification. As we read widely in the genres of the romance, dream vision, encyclopedia, bestiary, and more, we will discuss the possible differences between magic and science in the Middle Ages and, above all, examine the metaphysical implications of what C. S. Lewis famously called the “discarded image” of the medieval cosmos as an elegant and ordered whole. The medieval understanding of the universe, as we will see, was a powerful tool for meaning-making and deserves more attention than we usually grant to obsolete models of how the universe works. Reading medieval science and medieval literature in this way can also give us a better understanding of the relationship between contemporary fiction and science. After all, given enough time, our own scientific paradigms are likely to be superseded by others; but they are no less significant now for our understanding of our place in the universe.
First-Year Studies in Literature: Texting and Intertexting
No literary text stands alone. New texts build themselves out of creative engagements and dialogues with other texts. A literary tradition builds itself out of interchanges between writers and other writers, between writers and readers. This course will study the intertextual give and take among ancient and more modern writers. We will study clusters of books where we can see the textual dynamics of interchange and extension at work, linking “modern” texts with “classics” of earlier times. We will consider the ways in which writers in the last two centuries, particularly writers of color, have established their own creative authority and cultural centrality—in part by creative reading and re-envisioning several of the most powerful texts of Western literature: Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The cultural authority and imaginative power invested in such “canonical” stories make literary tradition an imagined place for experimentation with ideas of self and society and language, for the extension of the sense of self and community into new forms and possibilities. Among the modern writers whose works we will study as creative and transformative responses to the “classics” will be: Derek Walcott, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Gloria Naylor, Aldous Huxley, Mary Shelley, Charles Chesnutt, and Toni Morrison. These modern writers’ various strategies of appropriation, subversion, and transformation will vivify and focus our sense of the still challenging imaginative and social power of the “classical” texts. These instances of literary interchange should provide us with a way of thinking about literary tradition as liberating, dynamic, and pluralistic.
New Media Lab: Mapping the Invisible
The traditional ways of mapping the world rely on drawing objects that we can see with our eyes; but much of human experience is structured according to systems, networks, and connections that are largely unseen. What systems of meaning should be acknowledged when documenting our surroundings? What kinds of knowledge do we recognize in our sense of place? What is the difference—and what are the similarities—between our personal, cultural, and technological accountings of the world? Maps of the invisible can be based on any kind of connection perceived in a terrain. In this course, we’ll study landscapes that are both geographic and intangible—based on objective reality but also on memory, narrative, and systems of power—and reference artists, thinkers, cartographers, and geographers who are interested in manifestations of invisible systems while learning the basics of digital media production. Students will produce two individual map projects and contribute their own set of project markers to a larger collaborative map that we’ll design as a class. Readings will include the works of artists Trevor Paglan, Kathy Acker, Guy Debord, Fred Tomaselli, Paula Scher, Layla Kurtis, Alighiero Boetti, Joyce Kozloff, Ed Ruscha, and Susan Stockwell, as well as the writers Gloria Anzaldua, Amitav Ghosh, and Jorge Luis Borges.
How Stories Define Us: Greek Myths and the Invention of Democracy
The ancient Greeks originated the name, concept, and political structure of democracy. Their literature both witnessed and effected the very first-ever political and cultural transformation from tyranny to democracy, from rigid hierarchy to equality and the rule of law. How did telling and re-telling their myths help the Greeks develop the values necessary to make this transition? What can the ancient Greeks’ cultural transformation and their eloquent testimony about it teach the modern world? Readings will include the archaic poetry of Homer and Hesiod (eighth- to seventh-century BCE) and selected Athenian tragedies and comedies (fifth-century BCE). Students will attend one lecture and one group conference each week. At the discretion of the instructor, qualified students may enroll in the course as Intermediate or Advanced Greek.
British Literature Since 1945
British literature is often described in terms of tradition and continuity. This course departs from a very different perspective to explore a literature energized by conflict, change, and remarkable variety. Reading across genres, we examine how the alleged consensus of the immediate postwar period gave way to challenging questions about the nature of Britishness itself. We consider the social and cultural effects of decolonization and of Cold War politics. We discuss literary responses to the women’s movement, the troubles in Northern Ireland, Thatcherism, the European Union, the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and the emergence of the modern multicultural United Kingdom. Why were Sam Selvon’s Caribbean Londoners so lonely—and what happened to their descendants? What was Belfast confetti? What did it take to be a “top girl” in the 1980s? When did North Britain become devolved Scotland? These and other questions direct our conversation. Possible authors: Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Caryl Churchill, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, and others. This is not your mother’s Masterpiece Theatre.
Enchanted: The European Fairy Tale and Its Influence
Yes, it’s the name of a Disney film; but that’s hardly the end of the story. Fairy tales appear in every culture, in all historical periods, and in a kaleidoscope of constantly-evolving variations. In this class, we will focus on the rich traditions of the fairy tale within European culture, beginning with the emergence of the literary tale in Renascence Italy and its subsequent transformation by French writers such as Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy before turning to the great fairy tale collections of the Romantic period by the German brothers Grimm, Russian Alexander Afanasyev, and others. We will consider the implications of the shift from oral to written culture and of the 19th-century association between folk materials and nationalism. We will explore metamorphoses of the fairy tale in fiction, drama, and poetry, with attention to works by Charlotte Brontë, Christina Rossetti, J. M. Barrie, Angela Carter, Helen Oyeymi, and others. Throughout the semester, we will also engage with the large and fascinating body of commentary on fairy tales from fields as disparate as history, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism.
“Perhaps, one day, this century will be known as Deleuzian,” said Michel Foucault in 1970. A centurian microfable thrown together in Deleuze’s words: “Clarity endlessly plunges into obscurity.” “The intelligence always comes after; it is good when it comes after; it is good only when it comes after.” “This is the powerful, nonorganic Life which grips the world.” “Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. What is encountered may be Socrates, a temple or a demon.” “Perhaps we are moving too fast.” “…we ‘approach’ the point of conversion, the point of transmutation that will establish our dominion, that will make us worthy of action, of active joys.” “Being exhausted is much more than being tired.” This seminar will examine the history of Deleuze's writings, as well as subsequent waves of Deuleuzians in the 20th and 21st centuries, in order to illuminate situations that motivated new ways of understanding ecology, technology, politics, and war.
East-West: New Visions of Asian American and Postcolonial Writing
There is an orientalism in the most restless pioneer, and the farthest west is but the farthest east. —Thoreau
This course moves restlessly between two cardinal directions: currents of migration from Asia to North America in the 20th century and countercurrents of desire from the New World seeking the wisdom of the East. The different travelers sometimes seem invisible to each other as they silently pass and, at other times, seem to be moving in both directions—torn between the American dream and American beatitude. We will look at the history of Asian American immigrant writing for the truth behind the dream—and also at writings that record the experiences of exiles, refugees, travelers, tourists, journalists, monks, activists, gurus, and poets—for the stories they tell about desires oriented by an entirely different dream. This course examines migration history and postcolonial theory along with a broad range of literature, including diasporic writers connected to East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
Some of the greatest dramatic literature is set in an era preceding its composition. This is always true of a form of dramatic literature we usually call by a different name (Plato’s dialogues); but it is also true of some of the most celebrated drama, plays that we identify with the core of the Western theatrical tradition (for example, much of Greek tragedy). And it is very famously true of some of the greatest work by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Corneille. Some of the best contemporary playwrights also set some of their work in the past: Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, and The Coast of Utopia are all, in one or another sense, history plays. Setting a play in the past can create and exploit dramatic irony (The audience knows the history to come; the protagonists usually do not.), but there is no single reason for setting a play in the past. For some playwrights, history provided the grandest kind of spectacle, a site of splendid and terrible (hence, dramatic) events. Their treatment of the past may not depict it as radically discontinuous with the present or necessarily different in kind. Other playwrights may make the past setting little more than an allegory of the present; Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) seems to be a celebration of Victorian liberal imperialism. The playwright may set work in the past as part of an urgent analysis of the origins of his own situation. Michael Frayn’s best play, Benefactors, was written in 1984 but set in the late 1960s and attempts to locate the causes of the then-recent collapse of political liberalism, seeking in history an answer that could be found only there. But another of Frayn’s plays with a historical setting, Copenhagen, does not necessarily focus on something irretrievably past; rather, its interests may be concentrated on a living problem of undiminished urgency. Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, arguably the most successful work of 1960s political theatre, was a history play focused on what then seemed the explicit and unbreakable link between late 18th-century politics and the politics of the present. A recent play by Alan Bennett, The History Boys, seeks to illuminate something about the political present by examining a changing fashion in the teaching of history. In this course, we will read a number of works of dramatic literature—all of them, in one sense or another, history plays written for various purposes and of generally very high quality. We may or may not discover anything common to all history plays, but we will read some good books.
Modern Japanese Literature
This lecture course is an introduction to Japanese literature spanning the 20th century. We will move chronologically to consider how writers represented Japanese modernity in its varied forms. As Japan’s borders shifted dramatically from prewar and wartime imperialism to postwar occupation, its writers radically scrutinized the meanings of Japanese collective and individual identities. We will examine different tensions evident in writings ranging from a critique of “backward” social caste ideology in Shimazaki Tōson’s The Broken Commandment, to a mockery of Japan’s idolization of Western culture in Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s Naomi, and to the moral imperative of the writer as atomic bomb survivor and witness in Ōta Yōko’s City of Corpses. We will carefully and critically read these major writers and examine how they questioned the connections between place, history, memory, and identity. Other writers whom we will read include Natsume Sōseki, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, Enchi Fumiko, Ōe Kenzaburō, Abe Kōbō, Nakagami Kenji, and Murakami Haruki.
First-Year Studies: Dostoevsky and the West
Dostoevsky is often considered the most Russian of writers. He was, however, deeply influenced by his reading of contemporary Western European literature. Among Russian writers, he is also remarkable for the extent of his influence outside of Russia. This course will read Dostoevsky’s major novels in the context of the non-Russian works that precede and follow them. Our reading of Crime and Punishment, for example, will begin with Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Balzac and finish with Nabokov and Robert Bresson. While we will focus on Western Europe and the United States, we will also consider the work of at least two readers of Dostoevsky who claimed him from other parts of the world: J. M. Coetzee and Akira Kurosawa. Other texts will include Notes from Underground, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov, as well as works by Rousseau, Benjamin Constant, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Ralph Ellison, and Walker Percy.
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Concepts of life after death are among the oldest and most constant elements of all cultures, and among the compelling stories that humans tell is that of a journey to an underworld or an afterlife. But the representation of a passage through the afterlife is, of course, a kind of journey through this life. It is usually a voyage of suffering and redemption; and it posits a life after death where “divine” justice corrects all of the injustices that we experience in our time on earth. The telling of this story does many things: It illustrates and exalts the capacity of an individual for transformation; at the same time, it distills and reflects a set of values and helps to regulate life on earth by defining good and evil. And, perhaps most vividly, concepts of heaven and hell serve traditionally as repositories for dreams of ecstasy and fantasies of horror. In the Christian West, these images have taken many forms. In literature, they are usually visions or journeys to some kind of other world. In visual art, they are often in the form of Last Judgments or illustrations of visions. In film, they have taken on aspects of science fiction. And in psychology, they are the record of out-of-body experiences. This course will focus on Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is the most complete codification of the afterlife. In conference projects, students may study antecedents and analogues that might include books of the Aeneid and of the Odyssey, Platonic myths, books from the Old Testament and New Testament, medieval mystical literature, as well as pictorial representations of the Last Judgment and contemporary films. The course will be taught in English and is open to students with some background in literature. It is also open to students at the advanced level in Italian, who can do class reading and conference work in Italian and also have weekly meetings with the language assistant.
Spanish Language Authors of the 21st Century
Conditioned by swift technological advances and radical sociopolitical changes, what was hitherto known as the abiding space of literature has become a place of infinitely elastic crossings and exchanges. Formerly well-established boundaries such as national origin or language of expression have become rather porous. Twenty-first century writers feel that they have entered uncharted territories in which reading, writing, and publishing have taken on altogether new meanings. In this class, we will study the most recent literary production of the Spanish-speaking world as fully integrated in a rapidly shifting global map. The contours of the cultural paradigm inhabited by the younger generations of writers across the globe are subject to new currents of cross-cultural interdependence. An example: David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño are arguably the two most influential authors for contemporary Spanish and Latin American writers whose preoccupations are to forge new literary idioms. Such juncture demands a radically new way of approaching the latest literary productions from the Spanish-speaking world. As a corollary of the transnational, cross-cultural preoccupations of these writers, new textual crystallizations that defy generic classification have come into being. These include the contemporary chronicle; new forms of journalism, essays, and reportage; and the emergence of technology-based creative works. Authors to be studied include Roberto Bolaño, Alvaro Enrigue, Jordi Soler, Valeria Luiselli, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Enrique Vila-Matas, Javier Marías, Alejandro Zambra, and Guadalupe Nettel—along with others whose work was never meant to appear on paper.
US Latino Writers
The history of Latino literature begins in 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed and half of the territory of Mexico became part of the United States. A multitude of Spanish names were then integrated into the toponomy of the northern nation. In most cases, their meanings are transparent: Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Los Angeles. Other names have a more recondite history: California was an island featured in a chivalric novel published in 1510. Its inhabitants were black Amazons who lived under the rule of Queen Calafia. The deep relationship between ancient Spanish texts and contemporary works by Latino writers is evident in the novels of Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, the dean of Chicano letters, who used titles from Castilian accounts of the 15th century in some of his works. As Hinojosa-Smith’s compound last name reveals, the complex relationship between English and Spanish underlines the development of the Hispanic literatures of the United States. Hinojosa himself switched from writing in Spanish to English in the middle of his career. Most Latino authors write in English, but the sustained strength of Spanish in the communities that they represent makes them acutely aware of the importance of the language of their ancestors, which permeates and inflects their works in significant ways. Hispanic-American writers belong to a set of communities with different national origins, but a constant process of exchange and interaction among them has resulted in the consolidation of a shared identity. In different degrees, Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central and South Americans living in the United States feel that they are part of a larger Latino community. Language plays an important role in this phenomenon. Fueled by a continuously renovated influx of immigrants, the constant interaction between different communities is resulting in the creation of a new variety of Spanish in this country. In this course, we will study the literatures of the different US communities of Latin American origin from their inception to recent times. Some authors whose work we will study are Josephina Niggli, Nicholassa Mohr, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Oscar Hijuelos, Dagoberto Gilb, Cristina García, John Rechy, Francisco Goldman, Ana Menéndez, and Daniel Alarcón
This course provides exposure to a wide array of contemporary global writing from sites such as Nigeria, China, the former Yugoslavia, France, Columbia, Ireland, Zimbabwe, United Kingdom, Tunisia, and the United States. Readings consist of literary texts written in the last decade, originally in English as well as in translation, though students able to read these texts in their original languages will be encouraged to do so. Primary attention will be directed to the particular stylistic, formal, and thematic features of the individual works, as we keep in mind the dynamic relation between local contexts and transnational space—the complex circuits by which languages and cultures circulate and exchange in a global economy. Thus, we will interrogate such notions as “cosmopolitan,” “world,” “global,” and “postcolonial” as modes of intertextuality and consider what “comparative literature” means today.
The Reading Complex
Reading is a complex practice with its own cultural history and its own affective, material, and cognitive relationship to particular acts, spaces, and habits. Great differences exist between the norms and conventions of reading that govern, for each community of readers, legitimate uses of the book, ways of reading, instruments and methods of interpretation—the kinds of expectations, interests, and investments that characterize the entire enterprise that we will call “the culture of the book.” How conceptions and conditions of reading have changed over time will be explored primarily in fiction in which protagonists are readers. By examining the implications of literary characters’ imaginative responses to their textual lives, we will see that, far from being a passive or derivative activity, reading is a dominant mode of experience in itself. The tension between literature and life is always both problematic and generative. As readers read about readers within texts, they develop a self-reflexive stance regarding their own positions as readers outside the text, as well. Thus, as we consider reading practices and strategies metacritically, we will be compelled at various points to question the status of literacy in a postcolonial, multicultural, and increasingly electronic world. Among the authors to be included are Austen, Borges, Calvino, Cervantes, Dante, Douglass, Eco, Flaubert, Goethe, Proust, Roth, and Warner-Vieyra. Theoretical readings will draw from a wide range of sources.
First-Year Studies: Spain in the Making: A Literary and Cultural Counter-History
This seminar traces the literary history of Spain from the Medieval period forward in order to think anew about Spanish history and cultural politics today. Students will analyze a wide range of controversial fiction, nonfiction, and visual works that have marked the ideological development of a country characterized since its origins by a diverse and pluralist identity, with its intercultural fictions and global frictions between East/West, Muslim/Jew and Christian, and the impossible charge to maintain the appearance of “civilization” under internal and external “threat” and decline. Special attention will be given to the practice of counter-historical literary and critical analysis, discussion skills, and academic writing.
Declarations of Independence: American Literary Masterworks and Their British Counterparts
On July 4, 1845, Henry Thoreau began spending his days and nights at Walden Pond. His declaration of independence from the America in which he was living epitomizes a tradition of rebellion that goes to the heart of American literature. Time and again, America’s best writers have adapted the values of the American Revolution to their own times. In rebelling against religious orthodoxy, slavery, a market economy, and the relegation of women to second-class citizens—to name just a few of their targets—America’s prose writers have produced a tradition at odds with the country but consistent with the spirit of the Founding Fathers. Declarations of independence will focus on this tradition in terms of a series of American literary masterworks that feature the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, J. D. Salinger, and Sylvia Plath. Students will begin their conference work by putting the classic, 19th-century American novel in perspective by looking at a series of classic, 19th-century British novels.
Gloriana: Elizabeth I in Literature and the Arts
Four hundred years after her death, it is not surprising that Queen Elizabeth I has achieved the status of myth. In truth, however, she was already being mythologized during her life: in popular culture, by her courtiers, and not least of all by herself. “The Virgin Queen” was both celebrated and denigrated. She was the uncanny queen of fairies and the wise biblical judge Deborah. She was the chaste Cynthia, moon goddess and ruler of oceans. She was male and female, a figurative mother to her nation and, some said, a literal mother of bastards. Elizabeth’s 45-year reign was a national work-in-progress; the many representations of Elizabeth that circulated during her life and after offer a window on the continuing negotiations of political power, religious authority, and gender necessitated by the anomaly of her rule. This course presumes no prior study of the period and can serve as an introduction to the culture of Renaissance England. Our materials, mostly 16th-century, include biography, history, poems and songs, plays and other dramatic entertainments, paintings, and Elizabeth’s letters and speeches. We will draw on a variety of scholarly disciplines in interpreting those materials when working to understand the achievements of, and the challenges to, Elizabeth’s reign. Conference work may further pursue some of the course’s issues or materials or may center on a topic wholly unrelated, depending on the student’s interests and needs.
The Mirror and the Rose: Shakespeare’s Poetry in Context
The reading for this course is the poetry that Shakespeare wrote apart from the stage: his sonnets, his three narrative poems (Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and A Lover’s Complaint), and his strange lyric commonly known as “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Shakespeare was fully immersed in his culture, with strong roots in the busy commercial theatre of 16th- and 17th-century London, friends among many other writers of the period, and perhaps some distant acquaintance with figures at court. Just as Shakespeare’s plays show a knowledge of current trends in writing, so do his poems. And as in everything he wrote, Shakespeare was never a mere copycat. He transformed every genre or style to which he turned his attention, stretching its possibilities. To provide context for Shakespeare’s poems, we’ll also read several other poets: the Italian Petrarch (1304-74), grandfather of the love sonnet, as well as Sidney, Spenser, and Marlowe, three slightly earlier contemporaries of Shakespeare. Discussion will include technical issues of meter and form, along with the emotional, intellectual, and cultural work that the poems do. The course is meant for anyone who’s keen on Shakespeare or poetry of any period, or both. Students may do conference work in obviously related fields—Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers, for example, or a wide range of English poetry—or in an area completely unrelated to the course if it fits their needs.
First-Year Studies: Four Poets
At the heart of this course are four poets—Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Wordsworth (1770-1850), and T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)—poets we label, respectively, classical, neoclassical, romantic, and modernist. These four poets were enormously influential, bequeathing a complex legacy of subjects and styles to which later writers responded in all sorts of ways. Reading these four key poets, we will do several things. We will sketch out the divergent intellectual and cultural worlds that they and their poems both inhabited and shaped. Through close reading and consistent attention to language and technique, we will also aim to enlarge our sense of what a poem can mean and be for us as readers, literary critics, poets—or as all three. In addition to our main four poets, we will read the work of a variety of others, including Shakespeare, Whitman, Yeats, and 21st-century poets Susan Stewart and Louise Glück, so that we can discover how they engaged these forebears: what they loved, what they stole, what they rejected, and how their poetry can live more fully for us if we read it in the light of those who preceded them.
Experiment and Scandal: The 18th-Century British Novel
The 18th century introduced the long, realist prose fictions that we now call novels. As often with emergent literary forms, the novel arrived with an unsavory reputation and its early practitioners labored, often unsuccessfully, to distinguish their work from ephemeral printed news, escapist prose romances, and pornography. It was not until the defining achievement of authors such as Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott at the beginning of the next century that the novel achieved a status as polite and, at times, even prestigious entertainment. This course looks at the difficult growth of the novel from its miscellaneous origins in the 17th century to the controversial experiments of the early 1700s and the eclectic masterpieces of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Austen. Other authors may include Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, John Cleland, Tobias Smollett, Matthew Lewis, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. Everything we read will be arresting and restlessly experimental; much of it will also be bawdy, transgressive, and outrageously funny. Topics of conversation will include the rise of female authorship, the emergence of Gothic and courtship fiction, the relationship between the novel and other literary genres or modes (lyric and epic poetry, life-writing, allegory), novelists’ responses to topical controversies (slavery, the age of Revolution), and the meaning of realism. We may also consider films adapted from 18th-century fiction, perhaps including Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones and Michael Winterbottom’s 2006 Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.
Reason and Revolution, Satire and the City: Literature and Society in the Age of Swift
This lecture examines British literary culture across the lifetime of the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift. Between Swift’s birth in 1667 and his death in 1745, Britain emerged from an era of violent civil conflict to become a major military and colonial power with a functional, if often massively corrupt, political system, along with a sense of national identity that has remained consistent to this day and several of the world’s great metropolitan centers. As Britain achieved a new political stability, however, its marketplace of literature and ideas grew increasingly diverse and fractious—as journalism and popular fiction, some of it authored by women, challenged the cultural supremacy of neoclassical poetry written by and for men and as voices from the social and colonial margins made themselves heard in print. Swift’s career exemplified many of these tensions, as he wrote propaganda for both sides of the political aisle, expressed reactionary social values while crafting subversively experimental works of fiction, mocked the new urban culture of London while portraying it with loving fidelity, and attacked the English exploitation of Ireland even as he formed part of the Anglican religious establishment in Dublin. This course will cover Swift’s major works—from prose fictions such as Gulliver’s Travels to his outrageous scatological poetry and his scathing writings on Ireland, including the famous Modest Proposal—as well as a wide variety of other voices from this raucous period in English letters. Writers may include: England’s first professional female author, Aphra Behn; the wildly transgressive poet John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2004 film The Libertine; Rochester’s rival, the political satirist John Dryden; comic playwrights such as William Congreve; Swift’s friend and collaborator, Alexander Pope, who attacked and memorialized the social and literary scene of the day in lapidary verse; moral philosophers such as Bernard Mandeville; the visual satirist William Hogarth; and early novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Eliza Haywood.
First-Year Studies: Fops, Coquettes, and the Masquerade: Fashioning Gender and Courtship From Shakespeare to Austen
This course looks at the representation of sexual difference and romantic attachment on the page and stage from 1590 to 1820, a crucial period in the consolidation of modern assumptions about sexuality, marriage, and gendered behavior. The emphasis will be on drama and prose fiction, but we will also sample a range of other expressive forms, including lyric and narrative poetry, visual satire and portraiture, conduct literature, and life-writing. Students will be introduced to some of the most compelling figures in European literature, all of whom share an interest in the conventions of courtship and the performance of gender: John Milton, England’s foremost epic poet; Aphra Behn, its first professional female author; bawdy comic playwrights like George Etherege and William Wycherley; the innovative early novelists Eliza Haywood, Daniel Defoe, and Samuel Richardson; Alexander Pope, the masterful verse satirist; the pioneering periodical writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele; the cross-dressing memoirist Charlotte Charke; and the founder of modern feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft. Bracketing the yearlong course will be extended coverage of the two most influential authors of courtship narratives in English, Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Limited attention will be paid to earlier writers on sex and marriage such as Ovid and St. Paul, as well as to contemporary gender theory. We will also consider select films that reflect the legacy of early modern fictions of gender, including work by directors such as Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and Alfred Hitchcock.
The Bible and Literature
The Bible: The story of all things, an epic of human liberation and imaginative inspiration. A riven and riveting family saga that tops all others in its depiction of romance, intrigue, deception, betrayal, existential dread, love, and redemption. An account, as one commentator described it, of God’s ongoing “lover’s quarrel” with humanity. A primary source book for major literature in the Western tradition, still powerful in its influence on the style and subject matter of both prose and poetry. In the first term, this course will provide close readings of major biblical narratives and poetry in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Lectures will explore and interpret a number of patterns and literary types: the major historical narratives of both scriptures; the poetics and speech acts of creation, blessing, promise, covenant, curse, and redemption; the visionary prophetic tradition from Moses to John, the writer of the Apocalypse; the self-reflective theological interpretations of history by Hebrew chroniclers and the New Testament letters of Paul; the sublime poetry of the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and the Apocalypse of John; the dark wisdom of the Book of Job and of Ecclesiastes. The second term will study the work of major writers who have grounded their own work in biblical themes, narrative patterns, characters, and images. Selections will be made from the work of Dante, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, John Bunyan, William Blake, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison.
First-Year Studies: Text and Theatre
This course explores the relation between the play as written text and the play as staged event. More than any other literary form, drama depends upon a specific place and time—a theatre and its audience—for its realization. The words of a play are the fossils of a cultural experience: They provide the decipherable means by which we can reconstruct approximations of the living past. With this goal in mind, we will read and examine texts from ancient Athens and medieval Japan to Elizabethan London and contemporary New York (with many stops in between) in an attempt to understand the range of dramatic possibility and the human necessity of making theatre.
Shakespeare and the Semiotics of Performance
The performance of a play is a complex cultural event that involves far more than the literary text upon which it is grounded. First, there is the theatre itself, a building of a certain shape and utility within a certain neighborhood of a certain city. On stage, we have actors and their training, gesture, staging, music, dance, costumes, possibly scenery and lighting. Offstage, we have the audience, its makeup, and its reactions; the people who run the theatre and the reasons why they do it; and finally the social milieu in which the theatre exists. In this course, we study all these elements as a system of signs that convey meaning (semiotics)—a world of meaning whose life span is a few hours but whose significances are ageless. The plays of Shakespeare are our texts. Reconstructing the performances of those plays in the England of Elizabeth I and James I is our starting place. Seeing how those plays have been approached and re-envisioned over the centuries is our journey. Tracing their elusive meanings—from within Shakespeare’s wooden O to their adaptation in contemporary film—is our work.
Eight American Poets
American poetry has multiple origins and a vast array of modes and variations. In this course, we will focus our attention on the trajectories of eight major American poetic careers. We will begin with Whitman and Dickinson, those fountainheads of the visionary strain in American poetic tradition, before turning to Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery. Some of the poems we will be reading are accessible on a superficial level and present challenges to interpretation only on closer inspection; other poems—most notably, the poems of Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot, and Crane—present significant challenges at the most basic level of interpretation. The major prerequisite for this course is, therefore, attitudinal: a willingness to grapple with literary difficulty and with passages of poetry that are, at times, wholly baffling or highly resistant to paraphrase. We will seek to paraphrase them anyway—or account, as best we can, for the meanings they create out of the meanings they evade. Our central task will be to appreciate and articulate the unique strengths of each of the poems (and poets) that we encounter through close, imaginative reading and informed speculation.
Reading Ōe Kenzaburō and Murakami Haruki
In this course, we will read English translations of the two most famous contemporary Japanese writers, Ōe Kenzaburō (b.1935) and Murakami Haruki (b.1949). These two writers serve as symbols of competing trends in contemporary Japanese literature: “pure” (serious) literature versus popular literature. Ōe was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1994 for creating “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” On the other hand, Murakami’s fiction, which Ōe has criticized as “pop,” has been described as “youthful, slangy, political, and allegorical” and seamlessly blends the mundane with surrealistic elements. We will consider not only the differences between these two writers but also the similar themes in their works (social outcasts, alienation, search for identity, memory and history, legend and storytelling). Our readings will include novels, short stories, nonfiction, and essays.
The Greco-Roman World: Its Origins, Crises, Turning Points, and Final Transformations
This course invites the serious student to penetrate the tides of time in order to uncover what really lies behind the making of ancient Greece and Rome from their earliest times to their final transformations. The aimed-for result is a more deeply informed understanding of their direct contribution to us; namely, the classical tradition that still shapes our thinking and exercises our imagination. The methodologies employed will be derived as much from the fields of anthropology and sociology as from those of political science, economics, archaeology, and religious studies. The particular topics pursued will be set through joint decision by class members and the teacher but anchored always in the reality of what these two gifted peoples experienced—or believed to be their experience. To further this goal, all conferences will be in small groups, and all papers will be written as joint productions rather than as individual conclusions. A model for this procedure will be established in the first two weeks of the fall semester through the class’s multidisciplinary reading, in translation, of important selections from Homer’s Iliad.
Studies in the 19th-Century Novel
This course entails an intensive and close textual encounter with the novelistic worlds of the 19th-century realist tradition. The first fictional tradition to accept social reality as the ultimate horizon for human striving, the 19th-century novels that we will study are all intensely critical of the severe limitations to human wholeness and meaning posed by the new social world they were confronting. At the same time that they accept the world as a setting and boundary for human life, they seek to find grounds for transcending its limitations. We will explore the tensions in these novelists’ works between accepting the world as given and seeking to transcend it. At the same time, we will try to understand why—in spite of a century and a half of great historical and cultural change—these novels continue to speak to the issues posed by the human condition with such beauty, depth, and wisdom. We will read in the works of novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Stendhal, Eliot, Austen, Dickens, Twain, and Goethe.
Modernism and Fiction
This course will pick up the history of prose fiction roughly at the point at which the novel starts to become a self-conscious and problematic literary form in Flaubert, James, and Conrad. From these writers, we will proceed to the more radical and complex formal experiments of the great “high modernists” of fiction—Mann, Joyce, Proust, and Kafka. In the last part of the course, we will consider the question of what is now called “postmodernism,” both in fiction that continues the experimental tradition of modernism while breaking with some of its assumptions (Beckett and Pynchon) and in important recent theorizing about problems of narrative and representation. Throughout, we will pay close attention to the social and political meanings of both experimental narrative techniques and theories of fiction. Previous completion of at least one year of literature or philosophy is required.