Sophomore Seminar


Groucho Marx, the famous comedian and distinguished analytical philosopher, once observed that "practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book--and does." Marx may have been exaggerating (slightly) for comic effect, but it's a fact that New York City flourished as the literary capital of the U.S. in the 20th century. Despite the heyday of the MFA "Program Era," the city qualifies as the national headquarters of American writing even today. This sophomore seminar will explore a surprisingly understudied feature of New York's centrality to modern American literary life: the appearance of wave after wave of books picturing Manhattan, Brooklyn, and their fellow boroughs as the focal point and limit case of American identity. We'll begin with three famous texts from 1925 that cast Jazz Age New York as an alluring and treacherous pilgrimage site: F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," John Dos Passos's "Manhattan Transfer," and Alain Locke's Harlem Renaissance-defining "New Negro" anthology. We'll then turn to less familiar New York-set texts of the Depression 1930s (Pietro Di Donato's "Christ in Concrete" and Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"); the uneasy post-World War II pinnacle of American power (E.B. White's "Here Is New York" and Langston Hughes's "Montage of a Dream Deferred"); the lost world of interracial Greenwich Village bohemia (Frank O'Hara's "Lunch Poems" and James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"); and, finally, our own 21st century, nostalgic for the gritty and inflamed New York City of the 1970s (Patti Smith's punky art memoir "Just Kids" and Jennifer Egan's arty punk novel "A Visit from the Goon Squad"). Along the way, we'll pay special attention to the relationship between New York writing and the city's lively arts, visiting--if safely possible--St. Louis's Jazz Bistro to hear the living heritage of Bebop, invented in Harlem in the early 1940s. By the end of the semester, all comers should have a firmer and more creative sense of
Course Attributes: EN H; BU Hum; AS HUM; FA HUM; AR HUM; EL TC