English 20

Modern British and American Literature: Reliving the Past: Art and the Historical Imagination

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2018 Cordes Selbin, Jesse
TTh 9:30-11 note new location: 103 GPB

Book List

Brown, William Wells: Clotel: or, the President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States; Scott, Walter: Waverley: or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since; Whitehead, Colson: The Underground Railroad; Woolf, Virginia: Orlando: A Biography

Other Readings and Media

Course reader that includes supplementary texts by R. G. Collingwood, Hayden White, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, W. E. B. DuBois, Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Art Spiegelman, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Zeina Hashem Beck, and more.


In 1951, William Faulkner wrote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In 2008, Barack Obama invoked Faulkner to discuss the racial inequalities that continue to fracture the American nation, suggesting that we can only alleviate today's problems by confronting our past—by seeking in it both positive and negative models for inhabiting the present and building the future. Following that injunction, this course asks how history is made vivid through art (including literature, theatrical performance, dance, music, and visual media) and how that art can help reframe or reinterpret histories that are seemingly remote, messy, or unfinished. We will read works of historical and counterfactual fiction—from Walter Scott's Waverley (1814) to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad (2016)—alongside secondary texts from the fields of literary criticism, history and art history, philosophy, media studies, and cultural studies. In addition, we will study musical and visual art that puts the past back into play, from Kara Walker's debut installation Gone (1994) to the Hamilton (2015) soundtrack. Through these works and the Cal Performances events we attend, we will explore diverse theories of aesthetic and cultural change, from those that view art as a distraction from the "real" work of politics to those that regard art as the ideal medium for reimagining or redressing the past, and so reshaping the present.

In addition to the class meetings, students are required to attend the following evening performances: Schaubühne (Enemy of the People): Oct. 12-13

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Greek Theater: Sept. 23

Jordi Savall, Routes of Slavery: Nov. 3

Compagnie Kãfig, Pixel: Nov. 16-17

Big Dance Theater, 17c: Dec. 13-16

This course, including free student tickets to performances, is made possible by Cal Performances, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

 Note that this course was previously listed as English 170, but on May 30 it was changed to English 20.  Although it is now a lower-division class, the content, time, and location have not changed.

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