English | Studies in British and American Authors
L369 | 26259 | Ed Comentale

Ed Comentale

9:30a-10:45a TR (30 students) 3 cr. A&H.

TOPIC:  “Midwestern Literature”

Despite Thomas Jefferson’s early idealism and the Northwest
Territories Act of 1787, many still see the American Midwest as an
immense non-space, an anti-region, somewhere to leave, something to
fly over. Viewed from the perspective of the fast-paced East Coast
or the glamorous West, the vast middle ground of America often
appears, if at all, as unbearably flat and empty, a geographical and
a cultural black hole. Its forms of expression are approached with
heavy irony, if not disdain; the plastic deer and tin flowers that
crowd its lawns suggest not just bad taste, but a corrupt ethos.
This course, however, considers the Midwest as a unique space with a
diverse cultural tradition and as a significant place within
American literary history. It declines the smug perspective of the
continental flight for a grounded tour through the main sites of the
Midwestern landscape and the stories and poems that they inspired.
Dwelling on the prairies, towns and cities (including Chicago) of
the Midwest, it seeks to remap the literary terrain of the region
and restore a sense of the vitality of its literary production. To
accomplish this, we will consider the initial cultural and economic
promise of the region and then track its uneven development through
time, considering how transformations within its vague borders
reflect or resist changes on a National level. For the most part, we
will focus on the processes of modernization – the swift and
seemingly implacable changes of economy, technology, transportation,
class, and identity – that radically transformed the Midwestern
landscape and the lives of those within it. As we’ll find, many
writers have turned to the region as the scene of both great
potential and immense change, the spectacle of which was all the
more dramatic because of the large canvas upon which it was being
written. Thus, we will explore how a truly experimental tradition
emerged out of the unstable prairie lands and middling towns of the
continent and consider, as a whole, the ways in which this often
overlooked literature provided a significant response to the
complicated logic of modernity at large.

Readings will most likely be selected from the following: Nelson
Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm; Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg,
Ohio; Willa Cather, My Ántonia; Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie; F.
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory;
Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories; Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt;
Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology; Carl Sandberg, The Chicago
Poems; Ruth Suckow, Country People; Richard Wright, Native Son.

This is a discussion-based course, so both attendance and active
participation are mandatory. Students will be assigned response
papers, two exams, and two formal papers.