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Study information

The Cultures of American Modernism

Module titleThe Cultures of American Modernism
Module codeEASM100
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr Beci Carver (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

The American modernists differ from their British and European counterparts in being dispersed across a huge continent, with the result that their connection is defined less by mutual friends and common influences than by a shared commitment to producing difficult work. William Carlos Williams in the northeast had in common with William Faulkner in the Deep South that they set out to challenge their readers’ analytical skills. This module will introduce you to the work of eleven American modernist authors with the aim of unpacking as well as historicising their different experiments in difficulty.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module aims to provide in-depth encounters with the work of range of American modernists, some of whom are widely read today (e.g. Williams and Faulkner) and some of whom are only now being returned to by modernist critics (e.g. Maeve Brennan). We will situate each of these writers within specific cultural and geographic environments while also reflecting on historical justifications for modernist difficulty as a broader phenomenon – for instance, its attraction for queer writers who cherished subtlety and coded language in an era when homosexuality was still criminalised, obscenity laws were often invoked, and homophobia went largely unquestioned; its appeal for Marxist writers to whom techniques of defamiliarisation seemed to offer a means of resisting political complacency; and its theoretical importance for modernist writers who believed that art should be impersonal. One of the theories of modernism that centres heavily on its American element, Maud Ellmann’s idea of a ‘poetics of impersonality’, understands difficulty as a refusal of the personal. There is also an argument for doubting that there is anything behind modernism’s difficulty – could it all be a prank? In his recent book Modernist Fraud, Leonard Diepeveen plays with the idea that modernism might mean nothing at all – that its difficulty is an elaborate hoax devised to maximise the embarrassment of readers. This module will train you to think about modernist texts in context and in detail in relation to the range of theoretical and critical writing that relates to them directly and in an attempt to face what was deemed to be their most ‘distressing’ aspect head on.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate an ability to close-read a number of modernist texts with energy, interest, and relevant critical information
  • 2. Demonstrate a familiarity with current debates in the field as well with American modernism’s historical trajectory, landmark events, and the specific histories of writers

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Demonstrate a sophisticated and intellectually mature ability to analyse the literature of an earlier era and to relate its concerns and its modes of expression to its historical and intellectual context
  • 4. Demonstrate an advanced and autonomous ability to interrelate texts and discourses specific to your own discipline with issues in the wider context of cultural and intellectual history
  • 5. Demonstrate an advanced and autonomous ability to understand and analyse relevant theoretical ideas, and to apply these ideas to literary texts
  • 6. Demonstrate an advanced ability to digest, select, and organise interdisciplinary material and to trace the development of debate across disciplinary boundaries

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 7. Through module work and presentations, demonstrate advanced communication skills, and an ability to articulate your views convincingly both individually and in groups
  • 8. Through essay-writing and other assignments, demonstrate advanced research and bibliographic skills, an advanced and intellectually mature capacity to construct a coherent, substantiated argument and to write clear and correct prose
  • 9. Through research for module participation, essays, and presentations demonstrate an advanced proficiency in information retrieval and analysis
  • 10. Through research, module discussion, and essay writing demonstrate an advanced and intellectually mature capacity to question assumptions, to distinguish between fact and opinion, and to critically reflect on your own learning process

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Williams Carlos Williams
  • Marianne Moore
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Willa Cather
  • William Faulkner
  • Maeve Brennan
  • Queer Modernism
  • The Marxist defence of modernism
  • The Modernist hoax

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching22Seminars
Guided Independent Study33Study group meetings and preparation
Guided Independent Study70Seminar presentation
Guided Independent Study175Reading, research and essay preparation

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Recorded individual presentation followed by Q&A10 minutes1-8, 10Cohort feedback

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Close reading exercise252500 words1-6Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up
Essay755000 words1-6, 8-10Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Close reading exerciseClose reading exercise (2500 words)1-6Referral/Deferral period
EssayEssay (5000 words)1-6, 8-10Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 50%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 50%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Primary texts:

  • William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, vol. 1.
  • Marianne Moore, New Collected Poems
  • Sylvia Plath, Ariel
  • Willa Cather, My Antonia
  • William Faulkner, Complete Short Stories

Selected secondary texts:

  • Altieri, Charles. The Art of Twentieth-Century Poetry: Modernism and After. Blackwells, 2003.
  • Corn, Wanda M. The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity. 1915-1935. University of California P, 1999.
  • Diepeveen, Leonard, Modernist Fraud: Hoax, Parody, Deception. Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Diepeveen, Leonard, The Difficulties of Modernism. Routledge, 2003.
  • Dumenil, Lyn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. Hill and Wang: 1995.
  • Elmmann, Maud, The Poetics of Impersonality. Harvard University Press, 1988.
  • Hutchinson, George. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Harvard-Belknap P, 1995.
  • Kalaidjian, Walter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005).
  • Love, Heather K. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Mao, Douglas, Solid Objects: Modernism and the Text of Production. Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Michaels, Walter Benn. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Duke UP, 1995.
  • Marcus, Laura. The Tenth Muse: Writing About Cinema in the Modernist Period. Oxford UP, 2007.
  • North, Michael. Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word. Oxford UP, 2005.
  • Pease, Donald E., ed. National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.
  • Rainey, Lawrence, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Turner, Catherine. Marketing Modernism Between the Two World Wars. U of Massachusetts P, 2003.
  • Walkowitz, Rebecca. Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation. Columbia UP, 2006.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

Various online resources and digital databases.

Credit value30
Module ECTS


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