Lecture #1 of 20
Course Description: “The American Novel Since 1945″ is an study of popular literary works spanning from 1945 up until today. The course looks at common themes that have developed over this period of time and how these times shaped the form of the American novel. It also looks at the demands of publishing, the relationship between readers and writers, and perceptions of literature in American culture. Authors discussed include Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth and Edward P. Jones. The final book picked by students is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
The course is taught by Professor Amy Hungerford. She is the author of many books, including The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification and Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960. She also edits the journal, Contemporary Literature.
Introduction to the American Novel Since 1945
In this first lecture Professor Hungerford introduces the course’s academic requirements and some of its central concerns. She uses a magazine advertisement for James Joyce’s Ulysses and an essay by Vladimir Nabokov (author of Lolita, a novel on the syllabus) to establish opposing points of view about what is required to be a competent reader of literature. The contrast between popular emotional appeal and detached artistic judgment frames literary debates from the Modernist, and through the post-45 period. In the second half of lecture, Hungerford shows how the controversies surrounding the publication of Richard Wright’s Black Boy highlight the questions of truth, memory, and autobiography that will continue to resurface throughout the course.
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Richard Wright, Black Boy
Professor Amy Hungerford continues her discussion of Richard Wright’s classic American autobiography, Black Boy. Through a close analysis of key passages, she demonstrates an oscillation in the narrative between the socioeconomic deprivations and racial jeopardy confronting its characters, and the compensations to be found in sensual experience, the imagination, and in particular, the power of words. Dramatizing the editorial struggle evident in letters between Wright and Book-of-the-Month-Club-President Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Professor Hungerford shows the high stakes of Wright’s uncompromising portrait of America’s failed ideals at a time when those ideals are being tested during the Second World War.
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Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
Professor Amy Hungerford’s first lecture on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood addresses questions of faith and interpretation. She uses excerpts from O’Connor’s copious correspondence to introduce the critical framework of O’Connor’s Catholicism, but invites us to look beyond the question of redemption. What do characters see in this text, and what are they blind to? What do we see as readers, and how does methodology shape this vision?
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Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (cont.)
In this second lecture on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Professor Amy Hungerford continues to offer several specific contexts in which to read and understand the novel. Having used O’Connor’s letters to delve into her theological commitments in the previous lecture, Professor Hungerford now explores the southern social context, particularly with respect to race and gender, and the New Critical writing program of which O’Connor was a product. Hungerford finally suggests that O’Connor’s writing illuminates the important–and perhaps undertheorized–link between the institutionalization of formal unity by the New Critics, and their strong religious influences.
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Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Professor Amy Hungerford introduces the first of three lectures on Nabokov’s Lolita by surveying students’ reactions to the novel, highlighting the conflicting emotions readers feel, enjoying Nabokov’s virtuosic style, but being repelled by the violence of his subject matter. Nabokov’s childhood in tsarist Russia provides some foundation for his interest in memory, imagination, and language. Finally, Professor Hungerford shows how Nabokov, through the voice of his protagonist Humbert, in his own voice in the epilogue, and in the voice of “John Ray, Jr.” in the foreword, preempts moral judgments in a novel that celebrates the power of the imagination and the seductive thrill of language.
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Guest Lecture by Andrew Goldstone
In this guest lecture, Teaching Fellow Andrew Goldstone provides us with some key concepts for understanding Modernism and Nabokov’s relation in particular to his literary forebears T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. Positing the “knight’s move” as a description of Nabokov’s characteristically indirect, evasive style, Goldstone argues that Nabokov’s parodies of Modernist form in fact reveal his deep commitment to some of the same aesthetic principles. While the knight’s move often indicates a playful attitude towards tradition, it also betrays a traumatic rupture with the past, reflecting a sense of exile that links Nabokov’s art with the violence of Lolita’s protagonist, Humbert.
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Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (cont.)
In the last of three lectures on Lolita, Professor Amy Hungerford discusses the broader context of Nabokov’s relation to his novel: both the debate it inspires surrounding censorship and artistic originality, and the concern it evokes in him about the work of art’s distillation of the living world or word. Hungerford masterfully draws connections between Nabokov’s interest in lepidoptery–butterfly collecting–with his evident fear that the printed word become lapidary, or stone-like. Just as we can no longer appreciate the beauty of a butterfly’s motion, once it has been pinned down, so too might living language fall victim to a kind of violence on the page, a formal equivalent to the thematic violence that increases as the novel progresses.
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Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Professor Amy Hungerford’s lecture on Kerouac’s On the Road begins by contrasting the Beats’ ambition for language’s direct relation to lived experience with a Modernist sense of difficulty and mediation. She goes on to discuss the ways that desire structures the novel, though not in the ways that we might immediately expect. The very blatant pursuit of sex with women in the novel, for example, obscures the more significant desire for connection among men, particularly the narrator Sal’s love for Dean Moriarty. The apparent desire for the freedom of the open road, too, Hungerford argues, exists in a necessary conjunction with the idealized comforts of a certain middle-class American domesticity, signaled by the repeated appearance of pie.
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Jack Kerouac, On the Road (cont.)
In this second lecture on On The Road, Professor Hungerford addresses some of the obstacles and failures to the novel’s high ambitions for achieving American community through an immediacy of communication. Sal Paradise’s desire to cross racial boundaries, for example, seems ultimately more exploitative than expansive; Dean’s exuberant language of “Yes!” and “Wow!” devolves into meaningless gibberish. And yet the novel’s mystical vision of something called “America” persists, a cultural icon that continues to engage the interest of readers, scholars, and artists. Among these latter is the digital art collaborative Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, with whose online work DAKOTA Hungerford concludes the class.
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J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
In this lecture on J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Professor Hungerford presents her argument about religion in the novel as an example to students of how to construct a sound literary critical paper using evidence from the text. Moving between large claims and close readings, Hungerford shows how Salinger prevents his investment in mysticism from becoming mystification by grounding his sense of the divine in the specificity of persons, the importance of family language and love. In this way writing, like the theme of acting that appears again and again in the novel, models a spiritual performance that brings together artist and audience in the partnership of human communication.
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John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse
In her lecture on John Barth’s collection of stories Lost in the Funhouse, Professor Amy Hungerford delves beyond the superficial pleasures and frustrations of Barth’s oft-cited metafictional masterwork to illuminate the profound commitment to language that his narrative risks entail. Foremost among Barth’s concerns, Hungerford argues, is the multi-faceted relationship between language and love. Desire can drive a narrative, or disrupt it. Language can create desire, or replace it. Unifying the virtuosic variety of his tales is Barth’s inquiry: Does language always stand in for a loss of bodily presence? Must the written word always exist as the shadow of the oral?
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Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Professor Hungerford introduces this lecture by reviewing the ways that authors on the syllabus up to this point have dealt with the relationship between language and life, that collection of elusive or obvious things that for literary critics fall under the category of “the Real.” The Real can shout out from a work of art, as it sometimes does in Black Boy, or haunt it, as in Lolita. It can elude authors like Kerouac and Barth for widely different reasons. Placing Pynchon firmly in the context of the political upheaval of the 1960s that he is often seen to avoid, Hungerford argues that Pynchon–no less than a writer of faith like Flannery O’Connor–is deeply invested in questions of meaning and emotional response, so that The Crying of Lot 49 is a sincere call for connection, and a lament for loss, as much as it is an ironic, playful puzzle.
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Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Professor Hungerford draws a contrast between Toni Morrison and most of the writers studied up to this point in the course by pointing out how, for an African-American woman writer in particular, language is a site of violence. For all of her power to recuperate the voices of the oppressed, the novelist must be wary of the ways that breaking the silence, too, can constitute an act of invasion. As in the case of Pynchon, the word in The Bluest Eye enacts a near-physical touch; this is its pleasure and its danger. With inimitable complexity and grace, Morrison weaves her narrative around a young black girl who, in the void of her social persona, constructs a beautiful and poisonous fiction.
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Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
In this lecture at the midpoint of the course Professor Hungerford takes stock of the syllabus thus far and to come by laying out her guiding thesis of the Identity Plot, a rubric for understanding novels in the twentieth century as, she argues, the Marriage Plot is a rubric for understanding novels in the nineteenth century. Referring to examples throughout the syllabus, but especially Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Hungerford describes the overriding tendency of American novels written after 1945 to explore the tension between individual and collective identities and to interrogate the artistic and political stakes of competing notions of authenticity.
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Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Professor Hungerford situates Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (1980) in a tradition of American writing about the individual’s relationship to nature that includes the powerful influences of the Bible, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The loss of identity that Emerson describes as becoming a “transparent eyeball” in the woods, Robinson brings into the realm of the home, the built environment. The individual voice and its guiding consciousness are all mixed up in the material substance of the world, giving them a concurrent fixity and fragility that it is Robinson’s talent, and our challenge, to explore.
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Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (cont.)
At the very beginning of the course, Professor Hungerford offered students the opportunity to pitch a novel of their choice to fill the final spot on the syllabus. Today six students rise to that challenge, presenting their arguments for why each book would complete the intellectual trajectory established thus far. While the Teaching Assistants tally the results of the class vote, Professor Hungerford provides some final thoughts about the theme of loss in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. The effacement of the body in this novel, and the beauty of absence and hunger, result in what Hungerford terms an “anorexic aesthetic” that raises problems for feminist interpretation.
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Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
In this first of two lectures on Blood Meridian, Professor Hungerford walks us through some of the novel’s major sources and influences, showing how McCarthy engages both literary tradition and American history, and indeed questions of origins and originality itself. The Bible, Moby-Dick, Paradise Lost, the poetry of William Wordsworth, and the historical narrative of Sam Chamberlain all contribute to the style and themes of this work that remains, in its own right, a provocative meditation on history, one that explores the very limits of narrative and human potential.
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Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (cont.)
In this second lecture on Blood Meridian, Professor Hungerford builds a wide-ranging argument about the status of good and evil in the novel from a small detail, the Bible the protagonist carries with him in spite of his illiteracy. This detail is one of many in the text that continually lure us to see the kid in the light of a traditional hero, superior to his surroundings, developing his responses in a familiar narrative structure of growth. McCarthy’s real talent, and his real challenge, Hungerford argues, is in fact to have invoked the moral weight of his sources–biblical, literary, and historical–while emptying them of moral content. Much as the kid holds the Bible an object and not a spiritual guide, McCarthy seizes the material of language–its sound, its cadences–for ambiguous, if ambitious, ends.
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Philip Roth, The Human Stain
In this lecture on The Human Stain, Professor Hungerford traces the ways that Roth’s novel conforms to and pushes beyond the genre she calls the Identity Plot. Exploring the various ways that race can be construed as category, mark, biology, or performance, the novel ultimately construes the defining characteristic of its protagonist’s race to be its very concealment. Secrecy is, for Roth, the source of identity and the driving force behind desire and narrative.
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Philip Roth, The Human Stain (cont.)
In this lecture Professor Hungerford discusses how the novels we read are shaped by legal and market constraints. She traces a history of censorship from the Comstock laws, to the policing of Joyce’s Ulysses and Ginsberg’s Howl, and shows how changes in publishing practices have tended to penalize more unusual, less profitable books. Hungerford also touches on the canon debates of the 80s and 90s (citing John Guillory and Toni Morrison), and the issues of intellectual property and internationalization raised by digital literature. Finally, she points to some ways that Philip Roth, despite his controversial representations of Judaism and of women, succeeds in tackling fundamental human concerns.
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Philip Roth, The Human Stain (cont.)
In this final lecture on The Human Stain, Professor Hungerford argues that desire is the engine of narrative, for Roth, both at the structural level and in the very grammar of his sentences. Sex and writing are alike in their attempt to cross the boundaries between persons. Passing does not only occur racially, but is also likened to the process whereby a writer, like Roth or his proxy Nathan Zuckerman, comes to inhabit the subjectivities of other characters. One effect of these conflations–for example, Nathan standing for Faunia as he dances with Coleman–is to raise the threat of homoeroticism, which for Roth collapses difference with same-sex desire. Such stereotypes are a controversial characteristic of Roth’s fiction, which nevertheless continues to draw great admiration.
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Edward P. Jones, The Known World
In the first of her two lectures on Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, Professor Hungerford begins from the novel’s title, asking what counts as knowledge in the novel and why knowledge is central to the story. This leads to related questions: who is a knower, and what can be known? Highlighting several different versions of how knowledge of the past is communicated through storytelling within the novel, she draws distinctions between Jones’s model of historical knowledge and that of other writers on the syllabus. Professor Hungerford suggests that Jones revives a nineteenth-century form of the novel when his narrator takes on a God-like omniscience, but unlike the nineteenth-century novel’s narrators, Jones’s omniscient narrator provides little in the way of God-like consolation.
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Edward P. Jones, The Known World (cont.)
In this second lecture on The Known World, Professor Hungerford addresses Edward P. Jones’s ambitious and ambivalent relation to literacy. Jones shows us the power of narrative to bring together the fragmentation of the world, but is at the same time deeply aware of the fragility of text, all of the ways it can be destroyed, misinterpreted, abused, or lost. The son of an illiterate mother, Jones–who, it seems, composed and memorized large portions of The Known World before setting anything down in print–models a form of literary self-consciousness infused with the moral dilemmas of slavery and freedom that is unique among contemporary novels.
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Students’ Choice Novel: Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
In this first of two lectures on the students’ choice end-of-semester novel, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2002), Professor Hungerford models several methods for approaching and evaluating a new work of fiction. She shows how Foer borrows and adapts themes and styles from other authors on the syllabus in service to his ambition as a writer to demonstrate the power of narrative fiction to address the great historical traumas of our time. In thus attempting to marry the nineteenth-century social novel with Postmodernist, or late Modernist, techniques, Foer participates in an emerging tradition that risks the confusion between resonant emotion and sentimental cliché.
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Students’ Choice Novel: Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (cont.)
In her final lecture of the course, Professor Hungerford evaluates Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated with respect to one of her areas of expertise, American writing about the Holocaust. She points out how the novel takes on some of the questions of trauma theory in its examination of both the pain and the healing power of repetition. The most innovative characteristic of Foer’s novel is, for Hungerford, the way it addresses the inheritance of the Holocaust for third-generation Jews in America. The novel finds new ways to provide witness for and connection to their grandparents’ experiences in Europe, but also displaces a traditional Holocaust discovery narrative from the Jewish child of survivors to the Eastern European grandchild of those complicit in the destruction of shtetl life.
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Review for Final Exam
In this review session for the final exam, Professor Hungerford fields practice questions in an open forum so that students know what will be expected of their performance. She offers study advice from her own experience, and gratifies students’ curiosity about some of her own preferences and reservations regarding choices for the syllabus.
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Length: Full Course
Tags: fiction, novels