The Awkward Age: Transatlantic Culture and Literature in Transition, 1880 -1920 - EN866

Location Term Level Credits (ECTS) Current Convenor 2019-20
(version 2)
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7 30 (15) DR S Lyons







This module explores the affinities, disjunctions, and dialogue between American, British, and Irish literary traditions from 1880 to 1920. The turn of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth gave writers on both sides of the Atlantic an acute sense of epochal drama and self-consciousness: they brooded over ideas of decadence, apocalypse, progress, revolution, and the nature of the zeitgeist; heralded endings, transitions, repetitions, reversals, and beginnings; and explored the ambivalences and confusions provoked by the idea of the 'modern'. We will pay particular attention to how writers conceptualise and represent history and time, and seek to anatomise the varieties of pessimism, nostalgia, and utopian thinking that the turn of the century inspired.
This module focuses on texts by both canonical and non-canonical writers that often fall through the cracks of conventional literary history because they were published in the 'awkward age' and are often considered neither solidly Victorian nor yet programmatically modernist. We will interrogate standard national narratives of literary history (in the case of Britain, the compartmentalisations of the fin de siècle and the Edwardian, and in the case of America, those of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era), as well as the assumption that national literary traditions were distinct and coherent in the period. We will consider how American, British, and Irish writers reckoned with the forces shaping transatlantic intellectual and cultural life, especially post-Darwinian science, imperialism, socialism, feminism, and cosmopolitan ideals of culture. We will also consider how writers made the awkwardness of the age not simply a thematic preoccupation but a complex aesthetic challenge, prompting innovations as well as efforts to sustain the ideal of a literary tradition.


This module appears in:

Contact hours

Total Contact Hours: 20
Private Study Hours: 280
Total Study Hours: 300


Spring term in 2019/20

Method of assessment

Assignment (5,000 words) – 100%

Indicative reading

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

Cather, W. (1915). The Song of the Lark. (Any edition acceptable)
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1911). The Quest of the Silver Fleece. (Any edition acceptable)
Forster, E. M. (2000). Howard's End. London: Penguin.
Gilman, C. P. (2015). Herland. New York: Vintage.
Gosse, E. (2006). Father and Son. Oxford: OUP.
London, J. (2009). The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories. Oxford: OUP.
Shaw, G. B. (2004). Major Barbara. New York: Norton.
Wells, H. G. (2005). The War of the Worlds. London: Penguin.
A range of short stories and poems assembled in a module reader, including stories by Henry James and Rudyard Kipling, and poetry by Robert Frost, Charlotte Mew, Mina Loy, Lola Ridge, and Edward Thomas.

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1. Demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of some key genres, themes, and formal strategies of American, British, and Irish literature in a period of cultural transition;

2. Use historical knowledge and conceptual tools to reflect critically upon conventional literary periodisations and the constitution of national literary traditions;

3. Demonstrate knowledge and appreciation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature beyond canonical writers, and enhance their skills in analysing a diverse range of texts including plays, poetry, short stories, and autobiography;

4. Engage with current debates about the value of critical frameworks such as 'the transatlantic' and 'cosmopolitanism', as well as to assess the nature of a range of literary movements and genres that flourished in the period but are often obscured by the rubric of the 'Victorian' and the 'modernist', including decadence, naturalism, the 'New Woman' novel, the romance revival of the 1890s, science fiction, satire and comic writing, the 'antiquarian' ghost story, the adventure story, and life-writing.

5. Demonstrate the ability to synthesise complex information with precision and subtlety;

6. Demonstrate the ability to comprehend, analyse, and interrogate a variety of texts and assess the value of diverse critical approaches and ideas;

7. Demonstrate the capacity to mount complex arguments lucidly and persuasively in both spoken and written contexts;

8. Demonstrate the ability to situate their own arguments in relation to complex critical debates, and to articulate the implications of their own intellectual positions;

9. Demonstrate their capacity to carry out independent research.

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