Bart H. Welling, Ph.D., Department of English
LIT 2110, Introduction to Literature
The Rules of the Game
Each day we’re bombarded by dozens or hundreds of written texts, from freeway signs to designer clothing labels to English course descriptions. Our usual impulse, when we don’t just ignore them, is to derive whatever useful information we can get from these texts and move on. Sometimes, however, we have the privilege of discussing more enduring texts with other interested people, pausing to think critically about what these texts mean, about how we work with them to produce a range of possible meanings, and about why these meanings might make a positive difference in our everyday lives. In this class, in addition to mastering a set of necessary literary terms, you can expect to become proficient in the practice known as “close reading,” in which the critic s l o w s d o w n in order to pay the closest possible attention to the effects a writer has achieved by putting words on a page in a certain way. You can also count on testing your own ways of reading against those of other students and critics, improving your skills in the process. By learning to think and write critically about poetry, drama, and fiction, you won’t just enhance your appreciation of books, but will become a smarter and more active inhabitant of the world of language. (Plan on a moderate reading load, three papers, two presentations, and a short final exam).
LIT 2932, Themes and Types
Wild Encounters: Uncaging the Beast in Modern Literature
Why do “trained” wild animals turn on their human masters? Why do good pets go bad? What happens when humans give expression to “the beast within”? Our airwaves and movie houses in the U. S. have long been full of sensationalistic or simply trivial answers to problems like these. Meanwhile, generations of writers and theorists have been dealing with animal behavior, human/animal interactions, and questions of human/animal identity in ways that challenge our most fundamental assumptions about who we are, what—or who—“they” are, and how “we” ought to be treating “them.” In this class we will not just encounter some of the most famous beasts in modern literature, from Melville’s white whale to Faulkner’s Old Ben to James Dickey’s nightmarish backwoodsmen in Deliverance, but will frame our encounters with them by means of critical engagement with leading animal rights philosophers, biologists, ecocritics and ecofeminists, and other participants in the growing field of what might be called animal studies. Rather than advocating a particular political agenda, our goal will be to create an open and informed dialogue about the functions nonhuman animals and “beastliness” serve in American culture, and, more broadly, about the roles literature plays in helping humankind make sense of its place in a world full of other life forms.
AML 3041, Periods in Later American Literature
Placing American Literature
For many years, questions relating to the functions of place, region, landscape, and built and unbuilt environments in literature were largely relegated to scholarly discussions of “setting.” In an influential 1942 essay Eudora Welty, for instance, describes place as one of the “lesser angels” that “watch over the racing hand of fiction.” What really mattered in literature, Welty and many other authors and critics argued, were elements like character development, plot, symbolism, and other explicitly anthropocentric but also seemingly placeless and ahistorical concerns; the idea was to transcend issues of mere local, regional, or even national interest in search of what, in one truly international context (the 1950 Nobel Prize ceremony), Welty’s fellow Mississippian William Faulkner called the “old universal truths” of the “human heart in conflict with itself.” To identify oneself and one’s art too closely with a particular place (especially with regions historically considered strange or “backward,” like the U.S. South) was to court misunderstanding and marginalization both in the minds of common readers and critics and on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. The so-called globalization of the world’s economies and, with them, its languages and cultures, greatly contributed to the sense that the particularities of place in literature, as in daily experience, were on their way out, minor victims of our collective march to a global future of boundless convenience and prosperity.
And yet allegiance to specific places, as to the concept of place in general, has stubbornly refused to die, in part because modernity’s utopian dreams of placelessness have been shown to create a host of disastrous and often unforeseen consequences for local human communities and ecosystems. Literature and literary studies have become more and more concerned with the fate of languages, lifeways, and human populations and nonhuman species that have been dislocated and otherwise endangered by the forces of globalization. At the same time, the explosive growth of literature and literary scholarship by members of formerly silenced minority communities in the U.S. has forced mainstream literary criticism to grapple with such difficult place-related questions as, What does it mean to inhabit stolen property? What responsibility might the current inhabitants of a place have to atone for genocide, forced internment, environmental devastation, and other atrocities committed by their ancestors—or unrelated previous inhabitants? How do present constructions of place (both physical and intellectual) perpetuate, or possibly remediate, past injustices? How do literary devices and values like “metaphor” and “irony,” along with such literary topoi as the “Garden of Eden” and “cyberspace,” shape our perceptions of and behaviors towards our environments? How does a region’s sense of itself change as new waves of immigration upset old demographic—even spiritual—balances? What does it mean in the twenty-first century to be a Floridian? a Southerner? a Midwesterner? an American?
As up-to-the-minute as these issues might seem, and as vociferously as writers like Welty and Faulkner might have denied the centrality to their work both of real places and of something like what Harvard scholar Lawrence Buell has called the “environmental imagination,” the commitment to interrogating “place” that underwrites these questions is actually nothing new. The writers we will encounter in this class—Faulkner and Welty among them—are all positively obsessed with similar problems, from the role nonhuman nature plays in an unsatisfied woman’s struggle to find artistic and sexual autonomy (The Awakening) to a Mississippi family’s tragically comic attempts to take their dead wife/mother to the cemetery where her birth family is buried (As I Lay Dying) to a Native American veteran’s quest to bring healing to his own stricken life and that of his village (Ceremony). In examining these authors’ often tangled approaches to real places and to notions of local, regional, and national ownership and belonging, we will not only gain a richer understanding of the workings of American literature and criticism, but will begin to come to terms with some of the most vexing problems relating to where, and how, we live today.
Required reading: Kate Chopin, The Awakening (Norton Critical Ed.); Willa Cather, My Ántonia (Penguin); Jean Toomer, Cane (Norton Critical Ed.); William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (Vintage Int’l); Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (New Directions); Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Penguin); Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (Plume); Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (Penguin).
The Text in the Garden: American Environmental Writing and Ecocriticism
The Text in the Garden: American Environmental Writing and Ecocriticism aims to enhance students' understanding of American writers' literary responses to their nonhuman and built environments in a number of ways. First of all, the class will introduce students to some of the most provocative environmentally-oriented nonfiction, fiction, and poetry written in the U.S. since the appearance of Thoreau's Walden in 1854. Often relegated to the corners of bookstores and the margins of English departments as "nature writing," the tradition Thoreau helped usher in has included and inspired a vast number of books that do far more than celebrate mystical communion with trees and rocks. Rather, the best environmental writing—including Walden—raises profound questions about the nature of language, about what it means to be human in a world full of other species, and about the functions of literature and other cultural productions in times of ecological crisis. To help make sense of these issues we will approach our primary readings from a set of vantage points afforded by the growing school of thought generally known as ecocriticism. And by reading and writing ecocritically about environmental literature—in other words, by ourselves practicing ecocriticism—we will strengthen our ability to contribute in clear and forceful ways to ongoing debates on the present condition and possible futures of our planet.
Faulkner and Film
You've probably heard something about the novels and short stories of William Faulkner (1897-1962), the high school dropout from Oxford, Mississippi who grew into one of the undisputed giants of twentieth-century literature—and one of the most challenging and exciting authors you'll ever encounter. Innumerable scholarly articles and books have been written about his fiction, which is taught regularly in high school and college classes around the world. Much less attention has been paid, however, to Faulkner's long association with the movies, from his early experience viewing films like the racist epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) to his work as a screenwriter on nearly four dozen Hollywood features over a series of stays in California that totaled roughly ten years. What impact did this extensive Hollywood experience, and the new ways of seeing ushered in by the rise of film in general, have on Faulkner's writing? How did the writer Faulkner's modernist aesthetics and obsession with questions of family and national history, race, gender, environment, regional identity, community life, and privacy translate to the movie screen? What do literature and film gain, lose, and contribute to each other through the kinds of "translation" required to bridge these different technologies of expression? Students can expect to learn more not only about Faulkner's life and written work, but about the fascinating connections between two art forms that have come to dominate how we perceive and structure reality today.
Requirements: Regular attendance and serious engagement with both the books and articles we read and the films we watch, as demonstrated through quality classroom participation (at least one problem or question raised by each student per class), one formal presentation (8-10 minutes), and two papers (3-4 and 5-6 pages). Graduate students will also give research presentations on Faulkner scholarship, and will learn how to create a conference proposal.
Texts: By Faulkner (all Vintage International [New York] editions): The Sound and the Fury, 1929; Sanctuary, 1931; If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem [The Wild Palms], 1939; Intruder in the Dust, 1948 ; and other short stories and texts to be posted as Adobe documents on our Blackboard site. By Gene D. Phillips: Fiction, Film, and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988).
AML 6455, Special Topics
Mapping American Modernism
This course will concern itself with—and participate in—at least three modes of modernist literary/critical cartography at once. The first of these modes embraces current efforts in the academy to understand U. S. literary modernism in its transnational, hemispheric, and even global contexts, to interrogate and redefine the traditional coordinates of the “American”—perhaps even to rename “American literature”…something else! Critics to be discussed include Donald Pease, Debra Cohn, Walter Benn Michaels, Amy Kaplan, and others. A second kind of mapping involves a critical attempt to redefine American modernism as, in large (and largely forgotten) part, both a reaction to the popularity of earlier regionalist genres and conventions and a struggle to patch together new and more viable regionalisms from the fragments of the old, even as what would become the leading school of American modernism rejected close affiliation with particular geographical locations—beyond, of course, New York, London, and Paris. The third and most central subject of the course will be the drive among a wide spectrum of literary artists to employ modernist techniques in constructing conceptual maps of such rapidly changing American territories, literal and figurative, as questions of regional identity, the relationship between urban and rural areas and populations, the ever-heated debate over immigration and Americanization, and constructions of public and private space in the post-World War I and post-Great Migration American city and countryside. How did Whitman’s literary descendants contribute to the “gigantic and generous treatment” of the United States that he encouraged them, in 1855, to produce? How does modernist form both reflect and shape not just the reader’s experience of modernity but the concrete facts of modern life itself? What sense can we make of our American modernists’ literary maps in a post-post-modernist era? Answering these questions will help students construct durable conceptual maps of their own in the form of new understandings of literature, exciting research projects, and path-breaking essays.