English 166AC

Special Topics in American Cultures: Literature in the Age of Extremes, 1900-1945

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2021 Lee, Steven S.
Lectures TTh 10-11 + one hour of discussion section per week (sec. 101: F 9-10; sec. 102: F 10-11; sec. 103: F 11-12; sec. 104: F 12-1)

Book List

Cahan, A.: Yekl; Dreiser, T.: Sister Carrie; Faulkner, W.: The Sound and the Fury; Tsiang, H.T.: And China Has Hands; West, N.: The Day of the Locust; Wright, R.: Native Son


The aim of this course will be to capture the aesthetic and political extremes of the twentieth century’s first half. We will examine conflicting efforts to bridge the boundary between art and life against the backdrop of two world wars and economic depression, as well as ongoing struggles for race, gender, and class-based equality. The first part of the course will focus on two competing strands of thinking about racial and ethnic difference—one prescribing assimilation, the other emphasizing cultural pluralism. We will see how literary realism engaged the assimilationist strand, while the estranging aesthetics of modernism articulated difference in radical new ways. The course’s second part will then turn to the political extremes of communism and fascism, specifically how these re-inflected the assimilation-versus-pluralism, realism-versus-modernism oppositions established in the first part of the course. The at-times violent political and aesthetic impasses resulting from this overlay were ultimately overshadowed by triumphant notions of the twentieth century as an “American Century” touting civil rights and cultural freedom. However, the “American Century” was only first articulated in 1941, and today seems ever more eclipsed by a renewed age of extremes. Ultimately, this course seeks to provide cultural and historical perspectives from which to think across the many divides now confronting the United States.

This course satisfies U.C. Berkeley's American Cultures requirement.

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