English R1B

Reading and Composition: Meaning in Modern and Contemporary American Literature

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
20 Spring 2018 Clancy, Brian
MWF 2-3 89 Dwinelle

Book List

Aristotle: The Poetics; Eliot, T.S.: The Wasteland and Other Writings; Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby; Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita; Plath, Sylvia: Ariel; Poe, Edgar Allan : "The Man of the Crowd"; Pynchon, Thomas: The Crying of Lot 49


In this course, students will learn the skills of analysis and argumentation. As we learn in-depth techniques to improve our critical reading and writing strategies, the course's theme will look at the role meaning plays in different works of modern and contemporary American literature. For a classical background reference, in Aristotle's definitive philosophical treatise The Poetics, meaning arises from the reader's sympathy with the plight of a tragic character. One might ask, where else might a reader look for meaning in a story? When is meaning distinct from the plot? What role does meaning play in defining the 20th-century literary movements called modernism and post-modernism? Two works we will examine early in the course are Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Man of the Crowd" (an important precursor to modernism) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby. Here meaning emerges within critical moments. In Poe's tale, the protagonist marvels at "the absolute idiosyncrasy" of a facial expression which he selects from a throng of Londoners. In Chapter 2 of Fitzgerald's novel, the narrator calls our attention to an oculist's faded billboard advertisement. Here "the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg," eyes which are "blue and gigantic," create significance. These respective moments encourage the reader to focus on appearances in a way distinct from the more conventional elements of a plot. In these texts, such appearances of very precise and often fleeting phenomena present complex meanings which the reader is encouraged to interpret at length.

While considering the works of authors like T.S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, and Thomas Pynchon, we will examine meaning in relation to other topics: modern urban space, literary tradition, paranoia, material objects, as well as the philosophical concept of totality, or the different ways in which meaning can create the idea of a whole.

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