American Modernities: US Literature in the 20th Century - ENGL7210

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Module delivery information

Location Term Level1 Credits (ECTS)2 Current Convenor3 2024 to 2025
Spring Term 5 30 (15) Stella Bolaki checkmark-circle


This module is a study of twentieth-century American literature and culture organized conceptually around the idea of modernity. Students will explore the interconnections between modernity in the United States and the literary and philosophical ideas that shaped it (and were shaped by it) from the start of the century to its close. At the core of the module will be a necessary focus on two versions of American modernity, broadly represented by New York and Los Angeles respectively. Novels, works of art and critical texts will be read alongside one another to explore how these major regional hubs of aesthetic and cultural output developed competing conceptions of "modernity", “American culture” and the place of “the urban” in twentieth-century life, with important effects on contemporary perceptions of the USA. Moving beyond a sense of “modernism” as simply an aesthetic challenge to nineteenth-century modes of romanticism and realism, to consider the embeddedness of “modernist” literature within the particularities of its cultural and historical moment, students will be asked to develop a more nuanced approach to critical reading that pays close attention to the role of differing conceptions of modernity in the USA. The rise of mass culture, the L.A. film industry, the importance of Harlem to the history of race, the role of the intellectual, the urban challenges of the automobile, the birth of the modern American magazine, and questions of conservation and “creative destruction” in cities will all be considered through readings of key novels and critical texts from what Time Magazine editor Henry Luce famously called “The American Century”.


Contact hours

Total contact hours: 32
Private study hours: 268
Total study hours: 300

Method of assessment

Main assessment methods:

Essay (2,000 words) (30%)
Project (including 1,000 word reflective piece) (50%)
Seminar Participation (20%)

Reassessment methods
Alternative Assessment: 100% coursework (4,000 words)

Indicative reading

Indicative Reading List:

Didion, J. (2011), Play It As it Lays. London: Fourth Estate
Ellison, R. (2001) Invisible Man. London: Penguin
Jacobs, J. (1993) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. London: Vintage, 1993
West, N. (2006), The Day of the Locust. London: Penguin.
Wharton, E. (2000) The House of Mirth. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Yamashita, K. T. (1997) Tropic of Orange. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

The intended subject specific learning outcomes.
On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1. command a sophisticated understanding of the key themes, styles, and theoretical foundations underpinning the competing visions of American modernity in the twentieth century.
2. grasp with critical awareness the social and cultural contexts of American modernity
3. reflect critically upon the categories of the "modern", the "American", and their implications for the study of literature and culture in the twentieth-century USA.
4. command a knowledge and appreciation of twentieth-century American literature
5. analyse a diverse range of texts including fiction, architecture, visual culture, film, and critical and philosophical prose.
6. consider the importance of historically-grounded and interdisciplinary modes of criticism in the reading of literature and culture in the twentieth century.
7. develop their capacity to construct nuanced, fluent, and well-reasoned arguments focussed on the imaginative, intellectual, and cultural components of American modernism.

The intended generic learning outcomes.
On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1. evaluate and synthesise complex information with precision and subtlety
2. comprehend, analyse, and interrogate a variety of different kinds of text and assess the value of diverse critical approaches and ideas
3. demonstrate fluency and confidence in communication
4. mount complex arguments lucidly and persuasively in prose
5. carry out independent research


  1. Credit level 5. Intermediate level module usually taken in Stage 2 of an undergraduate degree.
  2. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  3. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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