English 52B, U.S. Fiction 1945 to the Present. Swarthmore College, Fall 2017.

ENGL 052B, An English Literature “Gateway” Course:
“U.S. Fiction, 1945 to the Present” Fall 2017
Professor Peter Schmidt

Introductory description of the course: It’s an old American story: re-invent yourself on the run, without time to think about the consequences or even what you’re running from and why. And yet the past keeps turning up, like your own shadow. What then? Whom do you turn to?—for you can’t get where you’re going on your own. That’s where the real story begins.

We’ll look at major authors and emerging figures, with attention to innovations in the novel as a literary form and the ways in which writers engage with their historical context, both within the U.S. and globally.

Count the novels again: the reading load will be heavy, averaging a novel a week. But this will give you an intellectual feast; they’re moving, exhilarating, audacious. Plus there’s some really strong recent writing in the mix, as well texts by classic American authors such as Hemingway, or L’Engle. We’ll ignore commercial marketing categories (such as Literature vs. Young Adult Fiction, Sci Fi, or Fantasy) to gain a comparative understanding of these various story-telling strategies and social engagement of these authors. Highsmith, Baldwin, and Hemingway, in very different ways, introduce themes of gender identity, sexuality, and politics that will be taken up by a host of later works, including Marshall, Díaz, and Belleza. Marshall and Whitehead represent two different but equally revolutionary strategies for representing trauma and healing in Black American memory. And in both McCarthy’s and Wolitzer’s novels follow a group of teenage friends (Vassar grads from the 1930s and summer arts camp friends from the 1970s) into their adult lives—personal stories of friendship and betrayal, but also stories of the nation’s changes.

Note: near the end of the semester, the author Rhoda Belleza and her editor, Swarthmore grad Tiffany Liao, will visit our class!

The primary reading list consists of the following 12 authors:
1950s –1960s:
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Ernest Hemingway, The Garden of Eden [written in 1950s; published 1984]
Mary McCarthy, The Group
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

1980s – 1990s:
Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow
Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek
Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life,” in conjunction with the movie Arrival

post 2000s:
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Rhoda Belleza, Empress of a Thousand Skies

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