Spring 2018 Courses: Graduate Seminars

ENG 5733.01J 34704: British and American Literature 1900-1950

Instructor: Dr. Jeanne C. Reeseman
Class Time: M-F, 10:00-11:55 a.m.
Class Location: Online, Synchronous/Asynchronous

Course Description
This course will cover two international literary Modernisms shared by Britain and the United States, first the period 1900-1919 before and during WWI, and second from 1920-1950, ending just after WWII. We look ahead to the1950s, the Cold War and the Vietnam War, inaugurating our current “period,” postmodernism. How ironic it is that in so many “periods” in literary and humanistic studies movements are classified by the end or beginning of a war. Old literary anthologies as well as new are broken into volumes this way. Such terms as Colonial Period, Antebellum, Postbellum, or using the years in American literature anthologies of 1865-1914, 1914-1945, and newer terms like “postcolonial,” and then the “contemporary,” or post-modern period, following WWII, are ubiquitous. What does it mean if we tell art history by wars? What does that mean for “Modernism”?

“Modernism” is a term like “Realism” or “Naturalism” that can mean a whole lot of different things in different times and places, and it has diverse roots. Particularly from the 1890s on, the United States, France, Germany, and Russia were swept from the mid-19th century artistic demands especially for wider representation by a rising tide of radical new ideas, philosophies, and politics following industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, as well as fatigue from the ongoing empires of Europe and their wars. Steamships and first telegram, then telephone communication became possible internationally. People heard the ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud. Writers like Joyce and Faulkner followed certain philosophers as Kierkegaard, Bergson, and Sartre. And then there are Darwin and Freud. In the modern arts, rejections of Romanticism and Realism, experiments with form and meaning, including literature, naturally appeared. In painting the Impressionists and then Expressionists, especially the more abstract artists, broke representational limits, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Matisse, van Gogh, Picasso, Bracque, Seurat, Rivera, and Pollack produced work of new visions. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” premiered in Paris in 1913 and caused a riot. Surrealist and other experimental paintings and films appeared from France, Germany, and Russia before and after WWI. Drama veered from Naturalism to Absurdism, from Strindberg and O’Neill to Brecht and Beckett. The Symbolist poets such as Rimbaud and the French novelist Proust redefined the narrative once again as a record of a character’s feelings, and no more, as did Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner, but it perhaps it was too late for that nostalgia and privilege any more. WWI changed everything about the national worlds and international politics and life than any other experience before or since.

The Britain of 1900-1914 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the collapse of the British Empire, upon which “the [had] sun never set.” Impudent artists such as clever Oscar Wilde, sprang up in a new Edwardian atmosphere, and he has his tragedies, but an entire generation of young British men perished in WWI. The United States entered late but also lost many. This does even begin to rival the civilian death toll of both wars; WWI itself approached 10 million. The use of horrifying new technologies in air as well as trench warfare, gases and more deadly machine guns and planes stunned the planet. WWI arose out of a sense of national, cultural, and ethnic power struggles among cousins (!) with crowned heads but helped raise an sense of social change, sometimes symbolized by such previously forbidden topics as women writers, nudes, abstract expressionism such as Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” In pre-WWI United States, much changed during what Mark Twain called the “Gilded Age” of the turn of the 20th century: increased wealth and increased poverty (Wall St. and the 1%), more internationalism yet more giant and unaccountable corporations, wasteful consumption of resources and greater abuses against formerly enslaved and Indigenous people and greater fights over immigration, industrialization, environmental destruction but also for London and other intellectuals of the age in his milieu. Yet they were both pointing to the same problem: lack of brotherhood. Socialism was then both a broader and a more specific term than it is today. London shared his socialism with people as diverse as Wilde, who also spoke of a syndicalist position. Perhaps there were looser social restrictions for women and people like tenement owners and purveyors of homemade liquor—all the way to the big banks and tycoons. The 1893 recession should have warned the robber barons of the Great Depression, just a couple of generations to come, including Trump’s grandfather and his father, both notorious speculative cheaters. You have to read Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935). Despite the fact that much of U.S. debt was owned by countries such as China, for Americans under Teddy Roosevelt, the fin de siècle was a time of great national and international contests. There were U.S. imperialism in the Spanish-American War and then the Mexican Revolution, Jim Crow, immigration restrictions based on Social Darwinism (Italians, say, on the East Coast, and Asians on the West), and the elimination of the Native American threat to westward expansion. Conrad and Twain wrote attack after attack on international colonialism and imperialism. And then WWI redrew the world’s maps once again, just as the imperial wars had always done.

Between the two World Wars comes the second wave of Modernism, as it were, the “Lost Generation” of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and, shared in different but similar ways, by Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, Yeats, Woolf, and Barnes. Our course will end with study of post-WWII writers, including Orwell and Kerouac. For the Cold War, we conclude with the film “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), dir. Stanley Kubrick. Thus, there are two main Modernisms for us to study, but we will end with the first flashes of Post-Modernism. The difference between Modernism and Post-Modernism is that Modernists, despite their doubts and challenge to the thinking of the past still believes there are values to be found. The Post-Modernist does not believe this and sees art as play with numerous allusions. In film, after WWII, what was called “Hollywood Modern” was a cinematic response to European, especially French and Italian films. We will be occasionally studying visual arts, dance, film, music, architecture and other forms of artistic modernisms. Student reports will provide contexts, as will a couple of guest speakers on the arts of Modernism.

back to top