Instructor: Morgan Day Frank
Meeting time: Wednesday, 3:00 - 5:45
Industrialization after the Civil War transformed American life in dramatic and horrifying ways, and it transformed “literature” as a category of cultural consumption too. Some writers, like the muckrakers, believed that their work had the capacity to shape public life. Others like Henry James conceived of their writing as art that operated according to its own rules. Still others like Ambrose Bierce grew pessimistic about literature’s capacity to accomplish anything whatsoever. This course will examine American literature at the turn of the twentieth century, when robber barons enriched themselves and many Americans were plunged into deep poverty. Through readings like Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, and Sutton Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio, we will consider the literary response to a range of historical developments, including the rise of consumer capitalism, the industrial nation’s fascination with pre-industrial life, and the creation of African American secret societies. By studying the shifting meanings of the literary as the country moved from the unfettered capitalism of the Gilded Age to the regulatory apparatuses of the Progressive Era, we will ultimately seek to better understand the meaning of literature in our own fraught historical moment. Whether we should turn to literature to solve our problems, or whether literature is itself part of the problem, are questions we will pose over the course of the semester.