English 52A (U.S. Fiction, 1900-1950)

English 52A-CC, “U.S. Fiction, 1900 to 1950”
Fall 2014, TTh 1:15pm – 2:30pm, LPAC 301
Professor Peter Schmidt

Course Description
This course focuses on some of the well-known and newly recognized novelists important for this period: Baum, London, Wharton, Cather, Hemingway, Hurston, Loos, Hammett, McCullers, and Steinbeck. See more details below about these writers and books. There will be attention to innovations in the novel as a literary form and to the ways in which writers engage with their historical context, particularly regarding issues of immigration, race, community, and redefinitions of gender roles and the meaning of “American.”

Here’s an overview of the English 52A readings for you.

We will begin the course by considering L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy as a heroine, using a xerox excerpt from Baum’s sequel to The Wizard of Oz, The Emerald City of Oz (1912), which gives us a fascinating supplement to the portrait of Dorothy. You probably know Dorothy not from Baum’s children’s novels (immensely popular in their day), but from the great Hollywood movie, The Wizard of Oz (1939), based on the first Oz novel. (If you’re one of the three people in the world who haven’t seen the movie, watch it this summer!) We’ll ask what makes Dorothy a powerful heroine.

Next up: Jack London’s White Fang (1906). This was my favorite book when I was 12 years old, eclipsing Treasure Island discovered the year before. When I reread it recently I was delighted to find that it’s still a great reading experience about survival against tough odds—and its unforgettable protagonist, a dog-wolf, is more admirable than many human characters I could name. Older now, I notice all kinds of other interesting things going on in the text, such as a meditation on what makes for real masculinity and strength, as opposed to false versions of this. It’s a fascinating exploration of how animals (including humans?) learn, especially whether fear or love is the better teacher. It’s also an investigation of whether genetic and cultural hybridity (White Fang is not just a “mixed breed,” but he’s raised by both Nature and then by a variety of human masters) provides strengths that either “pure” genetics or a single environment does not. In its complex approach to questions of genetics and the environment, the book in fascinating ways begins to seem an allegory about the early twentieth-century U.S., engaging with views that saw the nation’s racial and cultural heterogeneity as a strength, vs. white supremacist narratives that argued that the racial or cultural “mulatto” was dangerous and needed to be mastered by white Anglo-Saxon males. The novel certainly doesn’t provide a simple answer to this debate—one reason why its relevance endures.

Willa Cather, My Antonia (1918). Cather’s moving novel celebrates both the strengths of the pioneers “settling” the Great Plains and offers an elegy for the past, a vanished natural world, and all that has been lost in the name of “progress.” It’s also, surprisingly, a study of the role played by towns in the Midwest; it’s not just a rural novel. Cather considers how the pioneer experience and new opportunities in town life radically changed gender roles in the U.S., especially for women. Like London, she writes eloquently about the influence of Nature on the soul and has a complex take on what makes for good vs. corrupt societies. The book’s also on the syllabus because Antonia and Jim are two of the best characters in American literature; you’ll never forget them.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920). This is definitely not Ethan Frome (a novel some of you may have had to study in high school). It’s a delicious social satire of high society in Old New York in the late nineteenth-century, a world that Wharton was born into, knew well, and rebelled from. Age of Innocence (the title is ironic) also functions as a kind of anthropologist’s study of the “tribe” of economic elites and how taboos, ostracism, gossip, money, and marriage contracts function in order to allow “the 1%” to maintain their dominance even as they adapt to rapid social change.

Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926). Speaking of social satire, Loos’ spirited work from the “Roaring Twenties” is one of the most influential satires ever created by a U.S. writer. Loos was a successful Hollywood screenwriter as well as novelist. With Lorelei Lee, Loos gives us both a hilarious version of the “dumb blonde” stereotype (yet is she really as dumb as she appears, despite her hilarious malapropisms?) and a sharp look at men behaving badly. With Lorelei’s friend Dorothy, this novel also features one of the best wise-cracking sidekick characters in literature. Very little like the famous Marilyn Monroe movie of the same name. Two of the biggest fans of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes were Edith Wharton and James Joyce (!). Maybe you will agree with them.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929). Frederic and Catherine try to construct a healing relationship in the context of the violence of World War I. One of the most powerful and influential war novels (or anti-war novels) ever written. We’ll also discuss why in the Oscar-winning movie Silver Linings Playbook Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat Solitano, should perhaps not have thrown this novel out the window in his shock and frustration over its famous ending, which Hemingway rewrote over two dozen times until he got it devastatingly right.

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (1930). One of the best detective stories ever written, and the source for the later superb John Huston movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, this novel is a very noir-ish look into “what dreams are made of” and what people will do to each other in pursuit of those dreams. We’ll also use this opportunity to reflect on why the genre of the detective story is so enduring and such a central part of U.S. modernist fiction.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). The greatest novel to come out of the Harlem Renaissance was, perhaps surprisingly, set in Florida, first in a black-run small town (modeled on Hurston’s own birthplace, Eatonville), and then in the “muck,” an agricultural field workers’ camp before it is obliterated by a hurricane. It features as narrator and heroine one of the great figures in all of American literature, Janie Crawford.

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding (1946). McCullers’ masterpiece, one of the most profound, and saddest, coming-of-age stories in U.S. literature. It stars the 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Addams, a fascinating mix of introvert and extrovert, as she learns that she cannot will the world to conform to her dreams and hopes. A significant subplot raises the issue of racial justice and injustice in the South on the verge of a new phase of the Civil Rights movement.

John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (1945). If you know Steinbeck only from Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, you’re in for a surprise. This later novel is more comic and perhaps also more hopeful about humans’ ability to build a working society in the midst of economic hardships. Set in a community of “bums” who work when they must in the sardine canneries around Monterey, California, Steinbeck’s tale explores the possibilities for American democracy and individuality in the post-World War II era. Plus, through its portrait of Doc, modeled on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist, the novel uses the ecology of tidal pools as an analogy for how successful communities, like ecosystems, adapt to change and stress.


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