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Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of this module students should be able to:


The module has three points of focus: American Modernism of the interwar period; fictions of conformity and dissent from the 1950s; and revisionist narratives of American nationhood published in the late twentieth century. Students will critique the work of leading authors of the twentieth century, while engaging with a range of relevant critical and theoretical texts.

Brief description

This module examines a range of issues pertaining to the character of American culture and society as they are dramatised in literature produced within three discrete periods of the twentieth century.

Section One, `American Modernism', examines manifestations of modernist writing between World War I and II, from Willa Cather's nostalgic evocation of the landscapes and communities of the western prairies in her novel My Antonia (1918) to Alain Locke's New Negro Anthology (1925), which celebrated the `renewed race-spirit' of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. This section also addresses innovative forms of narrative adopted by John Dos Passos, in his encyclopedic trilogy of novels USA (1938), and by William Faulkner in the seven connected stories that comprise Go Down, Moses (1942).

Section Two, `Cultures of Conformity and Consent', focuses on Cold War fictions. Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952) anticipates the landmark Civil Rights campaign of the later 1950s and 1960s through its dramatization of the existential plight of an unnamed African American narrator. Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road (1957) articulates the impulse celebrated by other Beat Generation writers to escape all manner of social constraint. Kerouac's celebration of youthful energy, spontaneity and a Whitman-esque sense of the radical possibilities of American democracy contrasts markedly with the ultimate failure of Frank and April Wheeler, the protagonists of Richard Yates's novel Revolutionary Road (1961), to challenge the limitations of their circumscribed lives in suburban New York.

Section Three explores radical visions of American nationhood in late-twentieth century fiction. Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian (1985), which provides a harrowing and mesmerizing vision of the violence that lay at the heart of American territorial expansion during the 1850s, radically calls into question meta-narratives of national development. In her novel Almanac of the Dead (1991), the Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko provides an expansive and deeply troubling vision of the legacy of European colonization and US expansion in a contemporary setting.


Week 1. Introduction to the module
Selected criticism and theory, including extracts from Sacvan Bercovitch, ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol 6, Prose Writing, 1910-1950 (CUP, 2002) and Sacvan Bercovitch, ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 7, Prose Writing, 1940-1990 (CUP, 1999)

SECTION ONE: American Modernism

Week 2. Cultural Memory and the Settling of the American West
Willa Cather, My Antonia (1918)

Week 3. The Harlem Renaissance
Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro (1925)

Week 4. Literature as History: An Encyclopedic Vision
John Dos Passos, USA (1938)

Week 5. Imagining the South
William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses (1942)

SECTION TWO: Cultures of Conformity and Dissent

Week 6. In Search of African American Identity
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Week 7. The Beat Generation
Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)

Week 8. Suburban Angst
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961)

SECTION THREE: Revisionist Views of American Nationhood

Week 9. Regeneration through Violence, Revised
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)

Week 10. The Americas in ApocalypticVision
Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (1990)


This module is at CQFW Level 7