American Modernism, 1890-1940 - EN818

Location Term Level Credits (ECTS) Current Convenor 2018-19 2019-20
(version 2)
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7 30 (15)
(version 3)
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7 30 (15) DR MJ Collins







This course investigates the development of American modernism in art and literature in the fifty year period between 1890 and 1940; a time bookended by official closing of the American frontier (which effectively concluded the period of the nineteenth century associated with "manifest destiny") and the outbreak of World War Two. The course will explore key texts of the period within their artistic and social contexts, including the development of new scientific and social-scientific modes of inquiry, the growth of the city and the increasing importance of the USA on the world stage.

The course is organized into blocks comprised of texts associated with various cities and movements within American modernism. We will begin by looking at the importance of New York and the American expatriate scene, before considering modernism in the mid-West and US South. A reading pack will be provided in the first week as an aid to student research.

Students will be expected to develop their own research interests within the topic and will be assessed by a 5,000 word essay. Essays that investigate topics not directly covered by the set reading are encouraged and can be developed in consultation with the tutor.


This module appears in:

Contact hours

This module will be taught by means of two-hour seminar over eleven weeks.
Total Contact Hours: 22
Private Study Hours: 278
Total Study Hours: 300

Method of assessment

Students will be assessed on the basis of one piece of written work of 5000 words on topics of their own devising, in consultation with the module convenor.

Preliminary reading

(Indicative list, current at time of publication. Reading lists will be published annually)

Week 1:
Lower East Side/Ashcan School/ "New" New York

Seminar Required Reading:
John Sloan's Ashcan School Paintings
(course pack) Molly S. Hutton, "Walking in the City at the Turn of the Century: John Sloan's Pedestrian Aesthetics" in Heather Campbell Coyle, Joyce K. Schiller et al, John Sloan's New York (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)José Martí, "New York Under the Snow" (1888) Henry James, from The American Scene (1907)

Week 2: Henry Roth, Call it Sleep

Week 3: Greenwich Village/ Alfred Stieglitz

Seminar Required Reading:
(course pack) George Chauncey, "Long-Haired Men and Short-Haired Women: Building a Gay World in the Heart of Bohemia"
Leslie Fishbein, "The Culture of Contradiction: The Greenwich Village Rebellion" in Rick Beard and Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture (Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993) Christine Stansell, "Art and Life: Modernity and Literary Sensibilities" from American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000)

Expatriate Modernism

Week 4: Djuna Barnes, Nightwood and Ernest Hemingway Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises


Week 5: Claude McKay, Home to Harlem

Week 7: Nella Larsen Passing/ Aaron DouglasAdditional Reading: (course pack) Maria Balshaw, "New Negroes, New Spaces" from Looking for
Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in African-American Literature (London: Pluto Press, 2000) and Amy Helene Kirschke, "A Visual Artist with an Authentic Voice" and "The Evolution of Douglas's Aesthetic Language" from Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995)

Week 8: John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer

Week 9: Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie

Week 10: Sherwood Anderson, Winesberg Ohio

The Southern Renaissance

Week 11: William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Week 12: James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

See the library reading list for this module (Medway)

Learning outcomes

On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the key themes, styles, and theoretical foundations underpinning the competing visions of American modernity represented by key texts of the literary canon.

display a critical knowledge of the social and cultural contexts of American modernity and the development of the modern American city, particularly in relation to the tensions between ideas of "high" and "low" culture, the relationship of city spaces to the development of
intellectual traditions, and the importance of interdisciplinarity to the study of American literature and culture.

have historical knowledge and conceptual tools to reflect critically upon the categories of the "modernist", the "American" and their implications for the study of literature and culture in the early 20th Century USA – specifically how regional US variants of modernism differed from their
European counterparts and from each other.

possess knowledge and appreciation of early 20th century American literature, and enhanced skills in analysing a diverse range of texts including architecture, visual culture, film, and critical and philosophical prose.

show the importance of historically-grounded and interdisciplinary modes of criticism in the reading of literature and culture in the early 20th century.

demonstrate enhanced capacity to construct nuanced, fluent, and well-reasoned arguments focussed on the imaginative, intellectual, and cultural complexities of American modernism.

synthesise complex information with precision and subtlety.

comprehend, analyse, and interrogate a variety of different kinds of text and assess the value of diverse critical approaches and ideas.

orally communicate with fluency and confidence.

mount complex arguments lucidly and persuasively in both spoken and written contexts.

carry out independent research.

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