2015-2016 Literature Courses
The Music of What Happens: Alternate Histories and Counterfactuals
The alternate history, which imagines a different present or future originating in a point of divergence from our actual history—a branching point in the past—is both an increasingly popular form of genre fiction and a decreasingly disreputable form of analysis in history and the social sciences. While fictions of alternate history were, until very recently, only a subgenre of science fiction, two celebrated American “literary” novelists, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, have within the last four years written well-regarded novels of alternate history (The Plot Against America and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union). Similarly, while counterfactual historical speculation is at least as old as Livy, academic historians have, until recently, scorned the practice as a vulgar parlor game; but this is beginning to change. In the early 1990s, Cambridge University Press and Princeton both published intellectually rigorous books on alternate history and counterfactual analysis in the social sciences. Cambridge more recently published a volume analyzing alternate histories of the Second World War; and in 2006, the University of Michigan Press published an interesting collection of counterfactual analyses, titled Unmaking the West. This course will examine a number of fictions of alternate history, some reputable and some less reputable, and also look at some of the recent academic work on the subject. We shall attempt to understand what it might mean to think seriously about counterfactuals, about why fictions of—and academic works on—alternate history have become significantly more widespread, and about what makes an alternate history aesthetically satisfying and intellectually suggestive rather than hamfisted, flat, and profoundly unpersuasive.
First-Year Studies: Romantic Poetry and Its Consequences
In this course, we will be reading and discussing many of the most influential poems written in the English language during the last two centuries. One of the assumptions of the course is that modern poetry originates in the Romantic era, which will occupy our attention for a full semester. In the wake of the French Revolution, Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge invented a new kind of autobiographical poem that largely internalized the myths that they inherited. We will trace the impact of their work on poets from the second generation of Romantics through the early Modernist poets. Our pre-eminent goal will be to appreciate each poet’s—indeed, each poem’s—unique contribution to the language. Our understanding of literary and historical trends will emerge from the close, imaginative reading of texts. Authors will include Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti, Hardy, Frost, Stevens, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.
Literature in Translation: Vergil, Ovid, and the Challenge to Autocracy
What happened to Roman intellectual and political life under the reign of Augustus? How did Roman epic poetry transform poetic tradition and confront political authority? Students will read Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses in English, as well as additional works of Ovid, Livy, and Horace.
War, Violence, Spectacle
"Writing has now come face-to-face with a most crucial juncture: to negotiate with the inescapable presence of violence,” says Jason Mohaghegh. This course looks at the fiendish ways in which war haunts Asian/American writing of the late 20th century. Beyond the geopolitical event, wars enter memories, dreams, fantasies; reroute kinship structures and create unexpected alliances; re-map civil societies according to spontaneously naturalized conceptions of an internal enemy, detainee, POW; merge espionage, intelligence, and treachery into tropes of ethnic identity; and blur boundaries of peace and conflict into endless territories of home inseparable from terrains of war. "This is not dialectics; this is irrelevant catastrophe, for though the West forever stands as the First World, the East is never the Second or Third World, but rather the Seventh or Twelfth now becoming a Zero-World (insurgent waves of obsolescence).” (Mohaghegh). We will track literary texts into contagious zones of ancient media and new rituals. We will read analyses of contemporary war and theories of war technologies against the grain to extract the signs of a new aesthetics of violence.
First-Year Studies: Imaginariums of Globalizing Asia
This course provides a foundation for engaging in contemporary cultural studies in a transnational framework, with a particular interest in the roving horizon of the East. We will focus on a diverse selection of literature, together with film, video, sound, and other media. Our venture will be to explore an emergent trove of myth, fable, fantasy, image, and meme, which are becoming new imaginariums of cultures evolving in globalizing economies. Maps of this-and-that Asia, sedimented through centuries, appear against an uneven terrain of new cities, migration patterns, finance circuits, media chaos, and polymorphous bodies. There is everywhere a search, an unnamed hero, and a cleaving of East and West. In particular, our study of texts will attempt to understand the appearance of a new type of fictional character that is an elusive figure haunting discourses of a globalizing Asia. This figure is traceless, secretive, fugitive, nomadic, infinitely resourceful, and completely enmeshed in the contemporary world. Tracking this figure, we will find ourselves immersed in esoteric archives of fact, data, discarded things, cybernetic voices, old wigs, fake photos, abandoned houses, maps to elsewhere, and the ever-present signs of insurrectionary movements—political, criminal, poetic.
Declarations of Independence: American Literary Masterworks
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 purposes. 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 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 closely at a series of classic 19th-century British novels.
The Nonfiction Essay: Writing the Literature of Fact, Journalism, and Beyond
The aim of this course is to have students produce a series of nonfiction essays that range from the profile to the review. We start with basic reporting and work our way up to long-form nonfiction. We will read a series of well-known nonfiction writers—among them Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, John McPhee, and Henry Louis Gates. But the reading that we do is designed to serve the writing. This is not a course in the history of the nonfiction essay; it is a course in writing. Students are assigned essays with deadlines for drafts, rewrites, and final copies. The assignments are not “class exercises” but those that any editor would give. The aim of this course, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, is to produce nonfiction as lively as fiction; but we will not be engaged in “creative nonfiction” or covert autobiography. The writer’s subject, not the writer, is our primary concern. Accurate reporting is a nonnegotiable starting and finishing point. The course will begin by emphasizing writing technique; and as we move to longer assignments, our focus will be on the role that research, interviews, and legwork play in completing a story. This course is not for students with remedial writing problems or for students taking another writing course. A sample of your work is required for admission.
Styles of Paranoia: Conspiracies in Literature from Rousseau to DeLillo
Conspiracies and secret societies really do exist. Yet, in their classical narratives, conspiracies are not just mere plots but prime motors of history—diabolic agents intent on destroying the very fabric of the social order. This course will explore this move from reality to myth, from conspiracy to conspiracy theory, by analyzing the ways in which literature has represented secret plots. Our primary focus will be on French and American writers. Beginning with the paranoid father of French romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we will see how the authorial self is often posed as a victim of a vast conspiracy. We will then turn to one of history’s golden ages of conspiracy, post-Revolutionary France, to trace how authors such as Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Dumas depicted the figure of the secret society as both a shadowy source of paranoia and an alluring call to comradeship. Moving to the 20th century, we will see how the practice of literature itself came to be defined through conspiratorial discourses, focusing on French writers of modernism such as Proust, Gide, Nizan, and the surrealists. Finally, we will shift to another paranoid time and place, postwar America, in order to uncover how authors such as Pynchon, Didion, and DeLillo broke apart the narrative constructs of conspiracy theories. Throughout the course, we will supplement the study of literature with several key critical works on paranoia and conspiratorial thinking.
Recovering Jane Austen
Forget Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, and (especially) Anne Hathaway. Our course will cut through two centuries of sentimental misconceptions about the fiction and career of Jane Austen (1775-1817) and restore her novels to the boisterous period in which she lived and wrote: late Georgian Britain, on the stormy borderland between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Far from the gentle and retiring scribbler whom we know from tradition, Austen was, in fact, a professionally ambitious, socially engaged, and formally experimental artist—both a master of style and characterization and a topical satirist of lacerating insight and wit. We will pay close attention to all of Austen’s major writing—not only her six novels but also to her saturnalian shorter works and some of her revealing and often caustic correspondence and an array of literary productions that shaped her attitudes and artistry, including stage comedy, lyric poetry, political and moral philosophy, conduct literature, and Gothic, amorous, and sentimental fiction. The result, it is hoped, will be an expert knowledge of Austen’s canon and of her responses to the most controversial subjects of her age: the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars; female education and authorship; courtship, marriage, and sexuality; the role of the church; slavery and abolition; the growth of the British Empire; consumer culture; and the rise of the novel. We will also survey the critical and scholarly reception of Austen’s fiction from Regency-era book reviews to recent landmarks in Austen studies.
Acting Up: Theatre and Theatricality in Enlightenment England
From melodrama to burlesque, farce to musical theatre, the Restoration and 18th-century England helped shape the modern conventions of dramatic art and popular entertainment. The era also introduced an early form of celebrity culture, thanks in part to the rise of England’s first professional female actors and the reign of a king, Charles II, who loved theatre and all-too-public extramarital sex. The prominence of drama also raised unsettling questions about the nature and potential of performance itself, not only as a form of artistic practice but also as an element of social and political life: What if our seemingly God-given identities (king and subject, husband and wife) were merely factitious roles that we could adopt or discard at will? This course will consider how authors and theatrical professionals from the 1660s to the 1790s imagined the potential of performance to transform—or sometimes to reinforce—the status quo, with a look ahead to Hollywood films that have inherited and adapted the legacy of Enlightenment-era entertainments. Our emphasis will be on plays, with a survey of major 18th-century comedies (some of the funniest ever written), parodies, afterpieces, heroic tragedies, imperial pageants, sentimental dramas, and Gothic spectacles by authors such as William Wycherley, George Etherege, John Dryden, Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, John Gay, Henry Fielding, and Hannah Cowley. We will also consider nondramatic writing on performance and theatrical culture, including 18th-century acting manuals, racy theatrical memoirs, and a “masquerade novel” by Eliza Haywood, as well as films by directors such as Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and Hal Ashby.
Empire of Letters: Defining the Arts and the World in the Age of Johnson
“Damn Dr. Johnson,” grumbles a character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 novel, Cranford. By then, Samuel Johnson (1709-84) had been provoking strong feelings for more than a century. In addition to compiling the first English dictionary of note, Johnson was a gifted and hugely influential critic, poet, political commentator, biographer, and satirist, as well as a legendarily pithy conversationalist and master of the English sentence. His overbearing but strangely lovable personality was preserved for posterity by his friend and disciple James Boswell—who, in 1791, published the greatest (and most fun) of all literary biographies, The Life of Johnson, which records, among much else, Johnson’s near-blindness, probable Tourette’s Syndrome, and selfless love of cats. Now, after the tercentenary of his birth and the flood of books commemorating it, Johnson remains perhaps the most familiar model of a vigorously independent public intellectual, even with (or perhaps because of) his many eccentricities and contradictions such as his hatred of both slavery and the American Revolution. This course will reappraise Johnson’s legacy but will do so within a broad cultural survey of the anglophone world across the second half of the 18th century. Along with Johnson, Boswell, and other titans of Enlightenment prose such as Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and Adam Smith, we will sample international writing on imperialism and the slave trade (Olaudah Equiano, the abolitionist poets), the French and American revolutions (Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine), and women’s rights (the bluestocking circle, Mary Wollstonecraft). We will also sample the period’s fiction (Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle of Otranto, Frances Burney’s coming-of-age novel Evelina), comic drama (Oliver Goldsmith’s uproarious She Stoops to Conquer), and personal writing (Burney’s diary, Boswell’s shockingly candid “London Journal”), as well as Celtic literature (James Macpherson), visual art (William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds), and the poetic innovations that laid the groundwork for Romanticism (Thomas Gray, William Collins). We will also glance at Johnson’s reception and influence over the centuries; for instance, in the work of Virginia Woolf.
First-Year Studies: What We Do With Words: Literature and Theory (19th-21st Centuries)
In this class, we will study major works of modern and contemporary Western literature in order to better understand how writers felt compelled to invent new ways of speaking and fundamentally change how we all relate to language. During this same period, literary texts have become a crucial source of inspiration for philosophy—but also for other disciplines such as linguistics and psychoanalysis. We will study this dialog between creators and theorists, trying to better understand how they inspire and illuminate each other. Benjamin and Baudelaire, Heidegger and Hölderlin, Barthes and Balzac, Deleuze and Proust, Derrida and Poe are some examples of the dialogues that we will discuss. Other authors studied will include Gustave Flaubert, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, any Toni Morrison. Over the course of the year, we will focus heavily on the art of essay writing but also learn how to better express ourselves in public. We will acquire a better understanding of major literary and philosophical concepts in order to become more keen readers of all texts.
Literatures of Exile
Exile refers to the condition of banishment or expulsion from one’s native land, roots, home, and language and encompasses physical displacement, territorial dispossession, social marginalization, and estrangement. From expatriates sipping espresso in stylish cafes to starving refugees in squalid camps, the concept of exile conjures up striking images and generates rich metaphorical associations that is the intent of this course to pursue. Our principal concern, however, will be the particular political, cultural, and historical contexts in which exilic literature has been produced through the ages, beginning with the Bible. In the 20th century, the modernist canon is strongly marked by the sensibility and experience of refugee artists and intellectuals and by those whose émigré or exile status was freely chosen, while the contemporary cultural map reflects a range of divergent responses to raging conflicts about race, ethnicity, and nationalism(s), as well as struggles for new and different configurations of identity and otherness. Given the global nature of the experience of exile, our readings will draw from around the world and will be informed by various critical frameworks—mythic, theological, psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, and postcolonial.
Issues in Comparative Literary Studies
As a discipline that defines itself as an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and transnational enterprise, comparative literature occupies a distinct place in the humanities. Many locate the origins of “Comp Lit” in Goethe’s conception of Weltliteratur, according to which the literary imagination transcends national and linguistic borders even as it views every work of literature as historically situated and aesthetically unique. Since its beginnings, comparative literature has foregrounded the dynamic tension between text and context, rhetoric and structure—comparing different works within and across genre, period, and movement in their original language. By balancing theoretical readings in/about comparative literature with concrete examples of close textual analyses of poems, plays, short stories, and novels, this course will also expose students to the ways in which comparative literature has expanded from its previous classically cosmopolitan and fundamentally Eurocentric perspectives to its current global, cultural configurations. Comparative literature is continually reframing its own assumptions, questioning its critical methodologies, and expanding its objects of study. Today, it is impossible to study comparative literature without engaging its relation to translation studies, postcolonial and diaspora studies, and globalization, as well as to the ongoing concerns and various approaches of language-rich literary criticism and theory. Prerequisite: Previous course in literature and some proficiency in a foreign language.
Modern Japanese Literature
This seminar is an introduction to Japanese literature, in English translation, from the early 20th century to the present. 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. Writers we will read include Shimazaki Toson, Natsume Soseki, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Ota Yoko, Kawabata Yasunari, Abe Kobo, Yoshimoto Banana, Murakami Haruki, and Ogawa Yoko. Several films will complement our readings. For students with Japanese language skills, conference work may incorporate readings in Japanese.
Reading Ōe Kenzaburō and Murakami Haruki
In this course, we will read English translations of two major contemporary Japanese writers: Ōe Kenzaburō (b.1935) and Murakami Haruki (b.1949). 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.” Murakami’s fiction 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; several films will complement our readings.
Revolution and Utopia in Language: Russian Literature from Dostoevsky to Platonov
In his 1984 essay “Catastrophes in the Air,” the poet Joseph Brodsky suggests that, as its “every sentence drives the Russian language into a semantic dead end or, more precisely, reveals a proclivity for dead ends, a blind-alley mentality in the language itself,” Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (1930) can be profitably read as a sequel to Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872). This course will frame a reading of Russian literature both before and after the 1917 Revolution with Brodsky’s insight. We will begin not with Demons but with the most important revolutionary and utopian text in Russian literature, Chernyshevsky’s novel-manifesto, What Is To Be Done? (1863). In response to Chernyshevsky, we will turn first to Demons and then to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) before considering Andrei Bely’s attempt in Petersburg (1916) to write both an explosion into the 20th century and also a culmination of all that has come before. We will then read from the wild burst of creativity in the 1920s as Russian literature fragmented into smaller forms—Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey (1923), Zamiatin’s We (1924), Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), Olesha’s Envy (1927)—before finishing with The Foundation Pit and what Brodsky sees as its essentially Dostoevskiian message: “Language is a millenarian device, history isn't.”
Literature in Translation: Becoming Spain
What does it mean to be “Spanish”? How do speakers of four different languages, in addition to regional variants, negotiate their difference(s), their cultural identity? How do the multiple silences to which the country has been subjected in the 20th century, through the 36 years of the post-Civil War fascist dictatorship and the pact of silence that followed it as the price for the transition towards democracy, impact the way that people feel, think, behave? Basque and Catalan nationalism? The country of Opus Dei enacts the first European constitutional amendment to legalize gay marriage? As a hinge between contemporary Europe (and the European Union) and Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Spain is also home to a vibrant, diverse immigrant mosaic that further challenges and complicates notions of self and other. How does the postindustrial landscape impact gender and class? How do people interact with material cultural forms that help shape these contingent identities? These are some of the questions that we will explore as we look at the voices and aesthetic strategies that emerge in (primarily) 20th-century and contemporary literature and film.
Literature in Translation: Don Quixote and the Early Modern World: Knight, Lover, Madman, Reader
Don Quixote is many things to many people. To his family and friends, he is a madman—his brain addled by excessive reading of chivalric tales and other nonsense. Yet almost everyone with whom he comes in contact becomes a collaborator in his madness, on occasion outdoing him. To himself, he is a knight in shining armor, whose purpose is to defend and protect the poor, the disenfranchised (and damsels in distress). To most people, he is a sorry-looking old man who, for instance, challenges (older) lions into battle. Yet he can (rarely) battle—and defeat!—men much younger than himself. A member of the lesser nobility, he is singularly obtuse about money and what it means to make it, keep it, and manage it. He is both a lover, ever pining for the ideal lady of his thoughts, and the staunch defender of a woman’s right to her choices. He never married himself, yet he may on occasion provide wise counsel to young hot heads in love. Accompanied by his faithful squire, the rotund Sancho Panza, Don Quixote weaves a unique and luminous path through the so-called Golden Age of Spanish literature, the sum total of an age that saw an empire flourish and, some say, the beginning of its decadence after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. We will read this most extravagant, extraordinary, and very funny book in the context of the early modern world, one that in less than 100 years prior to the emergence of this gentleman had enormously expanded, where “East” and “West” and “Old” and “New” worlds had been linked—not on horseback, Don Quixote’s favored mode of locomotion, but by the technological advances in the sciences and navigation. What is the intellectual context, and how can it enrich our reading? What is the relationship between this rapidly changing world and the many worlds that we find in Don Quixote? What fundamental questions did this tremendous cultural shift raise, and how does the novel textualize them? Additional readings, to be reported in class at appropriate moments, will range from true accounts such as the cross-dressing Lieutenant Nun’s adventures in the “New World” to Lazarillo de Tormes’ earthy view of the underbelly of an unprecedented empire couched in a new and very ambiguous language, Tomas More’s excerpts from the chivalric romances that inspired Don Quixote’s greatness (or his madness and downfall), Moorish tales that play against the fascinating and intricately woven relations between the Christian and Muslim world for control of the Mediterranean, as well as Golden Age theatre, art, and music or Renaissance thought on a variety of topics.
Literature in Translation: Divine and Human Comedies: Dante and Boccaccio
Within two generations, two Tuscans produced extraordinary works of literature: Dante’s Comedia, written in the first two decades of the 14th century, and Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the middle of the same century. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a kind of summa of medieval culture, a prism through which he filters classical and medieval civilization and melds them in one magnificent and totalizing Christian vision that embraces art, literature, philosophy, science, history, and theology. Like all concepts of heaven and hell, it is a repository for dreams of ecstasy, fantasies of horror, and, most importantly, moral guidance. It is the magnificent vision of a profoundly religious and sophisticated Roman Catholic of the 13th and 14th century in Italy. A generation later, Boccaccio—a great admirer and imitator of Dante, as well as one of the first commentators of the Comedia (and sometimes credited with having added the adjective “divina” to a work Dante simply called “Comedia”)—writes his Decameron, a magisterial collection of short stories that represent an astonishing variety of human experiences in a vast range of narrative registers. In contrast to Dante’s “divine" comedy, Boccaccio’s work has been characterized as a “human” comedy—earthbound, humorous, indulgent, and dramatically different from the work of his admired predecessor. In this course, we will read both works, concentrating on salient cantos and stories to try to understand the genius of these two extraordinary authors, as well as some of their cultural origins, the new mercantile world of the 14th century, and the enormous changes that they effected in Western literature.
Poetry and the Book
Putting a book of poetry together is a difficult and complex task. The poet must consider not only the order of the poems but also the internal narrative of the book as a whole: how its constituent parts “speak” to each other, how key themes and patterns are developed and articulated, how to begin the book, and, even harder, how to end it. Yet, students often encounter poetry primarily through anthologies, with the result that first affiliations are fragmented and obscured. In this class, we take the opposite tack and explore the book of poetry as an event in itself. We read and discuss books by English-language poets across two centuries, from William Blake’s artisanal, hand-tinted works to Frank O’Hara’s portable “lunch poems.” How have individual writers sought to shape readers’ experiences through the patterning of content? What kinds of creative decisions—from cover to typeface—affect the appearance of a poetry book? What happens when a poet’s work is edited posthumously? Or when a book appears in multiple, evolving versions? What is hypertext poetry, and has it really abolished the poetry book as traditionally understood? Possible authors: William Blake, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara, Claudia Rankine, Stephanie Strickland, and others.
The British Romantic movement, it has been said, produced the first “full-fledged ecological writers in the Western literary tradition.” To make this claim, however, is to provoke a host of volatile questions. What exactly did the Romantics mean by “Nature”? What were the aesthetic, scientific, and political implications of so-called Green Romanticism? Most provocatively, is modern environmental thought a continuation of Green Romanticism or a necessary reaction against it? This course considers such issues through the prism of late 18th- and early 19th-century British literature, with additional forays into contemporary art and scientific writing and other national literatures. Possible areas of discussion include the following: leveling politics, landscape design, imperialism, astronomy, medicine, the visionary imagination, “peasant poetry,” vegetarianism, the sex life of plants, breastfeeding, ballooning, deism, sublime longings, organic form, and the republic of nature—with works by, among others, Edmund Burke, William Gilpin, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, S. T. Coleridge, John Clare, Charlotte Smith, Charles Darwin, Tom Stoppard, and others.
First-Year Studies: Frankenstein Unbound
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 of 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 Mary Shelley’s 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, Shelley Jackson, Donna Harraway, and others. Possible topics of discussion: paradises lost and imagined; Europe post-Napoleon; new Eves, old gods; 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 devised.
English: History of a Language
What happened to English between Beowulf and Virginia Woolf? What’s happening to it now? The first semester of this course introduces students to some basic concepts in linguistics, tracing the evolution of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar from Old English (Anglo-Saxon), through the Middle English of Chaucer, to the Early Modern English of Shakespeare and the 18th century, to an English that we recognize—for all its variety—as our own. Second semester turns from the history of English and the study of language change over time to the varieties of contemporary English and a sociolinguistic approach to the ways in which language differs from one community of speakers to another. Among the topics for second semester are: pidgins and creoles, American Sign Language, language and gender, and African-American English (Ebonics). This course is intended for anyone who loves language and literature. Students may choose their conference work from a range of topics in either language or linguistics or both.
Shakespeare and Company
The core of this course is a generous selection of Shakespeare’s plays, representing the range of genres and styles in which he worked over a lifetime. While Shakespeare was in some ways unique, the London theatre of his time was highly collaborative and attracted many gifted and successful playwrights. So we will also read Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and some writers perhaps less well known today: Kyd, Tourneur, Middleton, Beaumont, and Fletcher. We want to understand these plays first by making a close examination of their language and dramatic construction and then by referring not only to the physical and social organization of playhouses and acting companies but also to some of the cultural and intellectual traditions of the period. In conference, students might work further on any of the playwrights that we will be reading or look at other literature of the period; they might investigate a part of the cultural or historical context of the Renaissance or pursue a wholly unrelated topic, depending on their interests and needs.
First-Year Studies: 20th-Century Italian Literature
The course will explore 20th-century Italian literature, focusing on important literary figures, works, and movements (e.g., futurism, neorealism) that helped shape it. Italy became a unified nation in 1860, and its literature addressed issues such as (national and personal) identity, tradition, innovation, and modernity; the role of literature and of the writer; and the changing role of women in Italian society. We will explore the interrelation between Italian literature and crucial historical events such as The Great War, the rise and fall of fascism, World War II, the Resistance, the birth of the Republic, the postwar economic boom, the students’ and women’s movements of the 1960s and ’70s, and the terrorism of the “Anni di Piombo.” We will examine sources ranging from manifestos and propaganda to poetry, fiction (novels and short stories), memoirs, and diaries. The main focus, however, will be on the novel. Texts will include those authored by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Ignazio Silone, Vasco Pratolini, F. T. Marinetti, Italo Svevo, Grazia Deledda, Sibilla Aleramo, Alba de Céspedes, Alberto Moravia, Anna Banti, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, and Italo Calvino. Readings will be supplemented by secondary source material that will help outline the social, historical, and political context in which these authors lived and wrote, as well as provide relevant critical frameworks for the study of their works. All readings will be in English and available as e-reserves. No previous knowledge of Italian is required. Conference topics might include the study of a particular author, literary text, or topic relevant to the course that might be of interest to the student.
No Girls Allowed? Women and Science Fiction
Some historians of science fiction would locate the beginnings of the modern genre in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but in the first half of the 20th century, science fiction was inarguably dominated by male authors, readers, filmmakers, and fans. The first science-fiction pulp magazines printed short stories written almost exclusively by men, and the typical narratives of the time also catered to a readership at least perceived to be almost exclusively male—rarely featuring women as characters in any role except that of the damsel in distress or villainous temptress. Even when Sarah Lawrence alumna Alice Sheldon began publishing overtly feminist science fiction under the pen name “James Tiptree Jr.” in the 1960s and ’70s, some readers refused to believe that a woman could be behind the pseudonym. Today, however, the ranks of science-fiction authors are filled with females who have found the genre a unique tool for exploring women’s issues and often for developing feminist ideas in an imaginative space uniquely suited to their progressive aims—for example, by positing the possibility of radically different social structures in the far future (perhaps in utopias or dystopias) or by pondering more fluid alien gender identities or the consequences of new reproductive technologies. In spite of—and in defiance of—the historical and, to some extent, continuing identification of science fiction as a predominantly masculine or even “macho” field, our syllabus will consist entirely of female authors writing within or in close proximity to genre science fiction: not only Shelley and other earlier authors of so-called proto science fiction but also major figures of 20th- and 21st-century literature such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Nicola Griffith, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, and many others. We will also examine some of the perhaps unexpected affiliations and convergences between feminist theory and science fiction, best exemplified in the works of Donna Haraway.
Vision, Fantasy, Romance: Chaucer’s Early Poetry in Context
Gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, talking birds and castles in the air, love and betrayal in times of war, prophetic dreams and visionary journeys through the cosmos...all of these and more appear in the early poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer. Although Chaucer has been called “the Father of English Poetry” largely in recognition of his longest and most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, he would still number among the most important of medieval poets had he never written this later text. This course will focus on the lesser known half of Chaucer’s considerable poetic output; and our readings will include a diverse mixture of dream visions, ballads, fables, romances, and even a medieval analogue of the modern short story collection. As we read Chaucer’s early poetry “in context,” we will read widely in some of his literary predecessors, contemporaries, and imitators—meaning that this course can also serve as an introduction to late medieval literature as a whole. A trip through Chaucer’s library will take us on a whirlwind tour of medieval European literature and its origins. We will examine the mythologies and epic traditions of classical Greece and Rome, as well as a great deal of Continental French and Italian literature from the century or so preceding Chaucer’s time, including the Arthurian lais of Marie de France, the “bestselling” allegorical dream vision known as Le Roman de la Rose, and some of the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Finally, the course will conclude with a quick survey of Chaucer’s later literary legacies, particularly in 15th-century England and Scotland. The Scottish poet Robert Henryson, for example, produced a sequel to Chaucer’s tragic romance of Troilus and Criseyde that, in turn, influenced Shakespeare.
Games and Play in Medieval Literature
In contrast to popular depictions of the Middle Ages as an era of drab and dull suffering, games and other forms of play flourished across Western Europe during this period. Contemporary games such as chess, backgammon, and playing cards developed into their modern forms during the Middle Ages, and the upper classes enjoyed numerous leisure activities, including hunting, hawking, jousting, and more. In this course, we will study the place of games and gaming in medieval culture as a whole but with particular emphasis on the intersection of those games with Middle English literature. Evidence exists for the oral performance of medieval literary texts alongside other types of entertainments, and the distinction between “game” and “literature” can sometimes become blurred in, for example, formal contests of poetic composition; the courtly “demaunde d’amor” poem, which challenges the audience to provide a response; and ritualized insult exchanges—these last the medieval analogue of the rap battle. Our primary readings will include some of the major works of medieval English literature, including Beowulf, the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a selection of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But we will read these texts paying particular attention to various issues related to games, gaming, contests, competitions, sport, entertainment, and play—for example, the famous “beheading game” motif in Sir Gawain and the exchange of boasts in Beowulf. Alongside these canonical literary narratives, we will also be reading some less familiar medieval texts, including the verse party game known as The Chance of the Dice, an allegorical poem on The Game and Play of the Chess, fortune-telling poems such as John Metham’s Book of Destinies, as well as some Old English riddles and enigmas that influenced the riddling game in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We will also examine some 20th- and 21st-century games and literary texts that nevertheless bear many traces of the Middle Ages. A genericized version of the medieval West has become the default setting for a number of gaming genres, electronic and otherwise. As we study medieval games and their afterlives, we will take up several questions bearing on the epistemology of reading, writing, game playing, and “game making.” What, for instance, might we learn from understanding literature itself as a kind of game?
Arthurian Literature and Film
King Arthur, the once and future king, has truly never died. Early historians of England considered Arthur an important figure in the history of the nation, and he quickly became the most enduringly popular hero of medieval romance. This course will provide an introduction to some of the key Arthurian texts from the Middle Ages in the Welsh, French, German, and English traditions but will also invite you to explore the afterlife of Arthurian romance in much more recent English-language literature and film. For example, we will read in its entirety Sir Thomas Malory’s epochal compilation of earlier medieval Arthurian legends, Le Morte Darthur, and also T. H. White’s enormously influential 20th-century reimagining of the mythos in The Once and Future King—which itself inspired an animated Disney film and the stage musical Camelot—and, from there, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Spamalot. As we read various iterations of the tales of Gawain, Tristan, Percival, and many of Arthur’s other Knights of the Round Table, we will also examine some of the different cultural, nationalistic, and ideological uses that these stories have served over time. Because our study of more contemporary Arthurian narratives will heavily emphasize the long and varied filmic tradition, we will spend a substantial amount of time discussing adaptation theory as it bears on this most adaptable and adapted of medieval romance cycles, the Matter of Britain.
The Making of Modern Theatre: Ibsen and Chekhov
A study of the originality and influences of Ibsen and Chekhov, the first semester begins with an analysis of melodrama as the dominant form of popular drama in the Industrial Age. This analysis provides the basis for an appreciation of Ibsen, who took the complacent excitements of melodrama and transformed them into theatrical explosions that undermined every unquestioned piety of middle-class life. The effect on Strindberg leads to a new way of constructing theatrical experience. The second semester focuses on Chekhov, who in retuning theatrical language to the pitches and figures of music, challenges conventional ideas of plot. Finally, Brecht, Lorca, and Beckett introduce questions about the very sensations delivered by drama, plumbing its validity and intent.
American Stages: The Evolution of Theatre in the United States
In a nation invented on suppositions of individuality and equality, theatre has always held a peculiar place. On the one hand, Western theatre and the genres of tragedy and comedy were born from democracy in its ancient Athenian form; on the other hand, the communal nature of theatre goes against the expressions of self-reliance that characterize American vision and enterprise. This course explores the ways in which people who have called themselves Americans, sometimes with significant cultural modifiers, have thought about and made theatre from the 18th century to the present. We shall begin by looking at early attempts to create American “entertainments” based upon European forms. Soon, the displacement of native peoples, African slavery, expansion into the West, mass immigration, and industrialism led to new social and political uses of melodrama. In the 20th century, a “classic” American drama develops, represented in the works of Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. We shall then retrace our steps in order to gain alternative perspectives. These come primarily from the influence of African American music, particularly jazz, as it informs popular entertainments and blends with European vaudeville and “gaiety” shows to create a new and characteristically American genre: musical theatre. Simultaneously, the element of improvisation as derived from jazz contributes to the idea of unscripted work as quintessentially American, challenging the entire role of the playwright and the boundaries of theatrical space. We will then be in a position to examine the paradoxes of contemporary stages in which the invention of the self—that unique American assumption, privilege, and burden—is conflicted by identity politics, postmodernism, and the reflexive poses of irony.
Conscience of the Nations: Classics of African Literature
One way to think of literature is as the conscience of a people, reflecting on their origins, their values, their losses, and their possibilities. This course will study major representative texts in which sub-Saharan African writers have taken up the challenge of cultural formation and criticism. Part of what gives the best writing of modern Africa its aesthetic power is the political urgency of its task: the past still bears on the present, the future is yet to be written, and what writers have to say matters enough for their work to be considered dangerous. Political issues and aesthetic issues are thus inseparable in their work. Creative tensions in the writing between indigenous languages and European languages, between traditional forms of orature and storytelling and self-consciously “literary” forms, register all the pressures and conflicts of late colonial and postcolonial history. To discern the traditionalist sources of modern African writing, we will first read examples from epic, folk tales, and other forms of orature. Major fiction will be selected from the work of Tutuola, Achebe, Beti, Sembene, Ba, Head, Ngugi, La Guma, Dangaremgba, and Sarowiwa; drama from the work of Soyinka and Aidoo; poetry from the work of Senghor, Rabearivelo, Okigbo, Okot p’Bitek, Brutus, Mapanje and others. Conference work may entail more extended work in any of these writers or literary modes or in other major African or African American writers and movements, may be developed around a major theme or topic, and can include background study in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.
The Poetry of Earth: Imagination and Environment in English Renaissance Poetry
One of John Keats’s sonnets begins, “The poetry of earth is never dead.” This course will step back from Keats to the writing of several of his great predecessors in the English Renaissance to reflect on how imagination shapes environment and environment shapes imagination in the early modern period. The late 16th and 17th centuries were a time of transition between traditional feudal society with its hierarchical ideas of order, of humanity, and of nature and emerging modernity with its secularizing humanism, its centralization of political and economic power, its development of increasingly dense and complex urban centers, and its commitments to the study and potential mastery of nature through empirical science. With early modernity come all of the challenges to natural environment and its resources with which we are so familiar and by which we are so challenged: urban sprawl and environmental degradation, privatization of land, air and water pollution, deforestation and exhaustion of other resources, and diminishment of local species populations. We will study how several major writers register and respond to these tensions and these changes in what we might call their environmental vision, their imagination of nature as wilderness, the “other” to civilization and its values, as chaos and threat, as liminal space of transformation, as pastoral retreat, as cultivatable human habitation and home. Class reading will include major works of Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, and Margaret Cavendish. Conference work may entail more extended work in any of these writers or literary modes or other authors in the period who are engaged in theorizing and imagining nature and may include study in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.
James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the most important novels of literary modernism, tracks its two major characters, hour by hour, through the streets of Dublin, Ireland, on a single day, June 16, 1904. Never has the life of a modern city and the interior lives of its inhabitants been so densely and sensitively chronicled. But the text is not only grounded in the “real life” of turn-of-the-century Dublin; it is also deeply grounded in literary landscapes, characters, and plots that stretch back to Shakespeare—and beyond Shakespeare to Homer. This class offers the chance for close study of three great texts that are deeply implicated in one another: Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Joyce’s Ulysses. The themes of circular journeying, fate, identity, parent-child relations and indebtedness, and “the feminine mystique” that we trace in the Odyssey and Hamlet will prepare us for a careful and joyful reading of Joyce’s exuberant human comedy in Ulysses.
Slavery: A Literary History
This course aims to provide a long view of literary representations and responses to slavery and the slave trade in the Americas from William Shakespeare to Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones. Expressing the conflicted public conscience—and perhaps the collective unconscious—of a nation, literature registers vividly the human costs (and profits) and dehumanizing consequences of a social practice whose legacy still haunts and implicates us. We will study some of the major texts that stage the central crises in human relations, social institutions, and human identity provoked by slavery, considering in particular how these texts represent the perverse dynamics and identifications of the master-slave relationship; the systematic assaults on identity and community developed and practiced in slave-owning cultures; modes of resistance, survival, and subversion cultivated by slave communities and individuals to preserve their humanity and reclaim their liberty; and retrospective constructions of and meditations on slavery and its historical consequences. Since literary structure and style are not only representational but also a means of subversion, resistance, and reclamation, we will do a lot of close reading. Readings will be drawn from the works of William Shakespeare, Aime Cesaire, Aphra Behn, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Edward P. Jones. Conference work may entail more extended work in any of these writers or literary modes or in other writers engaged in the representation and interrogation of slavery, may be developed around a major theme or topic, and may include background study in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.
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.
Hauntologies: Specters of the Subject Cultural Formations
"The future belongs to the ghosts,” remarked the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1996. As his interlocutor Bernard Stiegler phrases the main idea behind this statement, “Modern technology, contrary to appearances, increases tenfold the power of ghosts." With the advent of the Internet, various forms of social media, and the ubiquity of filmic images in our lives, Derrida's observations have proven to be prophetic such that they call for a new field of study, one that requires less an ontology of the real and more a “hauntology” (to invoke Derrida's punning term) of the spectral, the virtual, the phantasmic, the recurrent. In this seminar, we consider ways in which the present is haunted by a condition of spectrality. Topics to be covered include: ghosts and hauntings, figures and apparitions, history and memory, trauma and political crisis, digital interfaces, visual and acoustic images. We will be considering a range of films and video, photography, literary texts, acoustic reverberations, Internet and social media, and everyday discourses and imaginings. Through these inquiries, we will be able to further our understanding of the nature of specters and apparitions in the contemporary world in their many forms and dimensions. Students will be invited to undertake their own hauntologies and thus craft studies of the phenomenal force of specters, hauntings, and the apparitional in particular social or cultural contexts.
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 that 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 that they create out of the meanings that 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.
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.