Mitchell Siporin, 'Workers Family, woodcut, 1937

American Modernism and the Radical Thirties

Instructor: Jude Webre
Molasses Bookstore
770 Hart. St
Brooklyn, NY 11237

This course seeks to understand what were the possibilities (and limits) of radical political and cultural transformation in the United States between 1929 and 1941. Most of the readings will focus on New York City, but imagining a national culture and international solidarity will also be important themes.The readings for the course, which include fiction, poetry, memoir, reportage, history, and film, are oriented around the concept of American Modernism, broadly construed, and are chosen to address both parts of this concept. What was specifically American about this type of modernism? How did pragmatism, cultural democracy, and ethnic pluralism contribute to a more capacious political understanding of modernism? How did modernism allow these intellectuals and artists to redefine American history and national culture in more radical and experimental terms, employing technology and popular culture to challenge prevailing hierarchies, inequalities, and injustices? What is the legacy of the Radical Thirties? What parallels, analogies, and divergences apply to debates about cultural radicalism today?

Although the majority of readings will be cultural texts, this is a history course, emphasizing chronology and historical conjuncture as well as important factors in political economy and international politics.  Primary readings will include: William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All, John Dos Passos’ 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, Muriel Rukeyser’s Savage Coast, and Casablanca, as well as selected short readings by Kenneth Burke, Edmund Wilson, Langston Hughes, Caroline Ware, and Clement Greenberg. Primary sources will be supplemented with selections from secondary literature by historians William Leuchtenberg, Ira Katznelson, and Michael Denning. As a group, we will use close reading and collective interpretation to understand literary artifacts as historical sources. As Fredric Jameson argues, a text constructs the historical context that it responds to, and this was never more true than with the self-conscious political formalism of the Thirties. To this end, Kenneth Burke’s pragmatist theory of symbolic action, which emerged out of Burke’s own participation in the ’30s left, will serve as a key formulation.

Course Schedule

Monday, 7-10pm
November 23 — December 14, 2015
4 sessions