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Study information

The Literature of Cold War America

Module titleThe Literature of Cold War America
Module codeEASM157
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Dr Paul Williams (Lecturer)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

This module seeks to critically assess the ways in which U.S. writers negotiated the domestic and international politics of the Cold War, as well as the extent to which the long-running conflict impacted more widely on U.S. intellectual and cultural life, not least in the rise of American Studies itself as an academic discipline. Emphasising and interrogating some influential early paradigms in Cold War studies – specifically the “containment model” articulated by scholars such as Elaine Tyler May and Alan Nadel – and engaging with more recent work in global Cold War Studies, the module will introduce you to the range and diversity of writing that emerged from the United States during the Cold War era.

The module may be taken as part of the broad M.A. in English Literary Studies, but it is also a qualifying module for the American and Atlantic Studies Pathway.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to provide you with a sophisticated ability to analyse the literature produced during a prolonged moment of social, cultural and intellectual anxiety in the United States: the Cold War. Literature of Cold War America will encourage you to engage with the key debates in twenty-first-century Cold War Studies, debates that take “containment, integration, and three worlds as powerful, but not necessarily exclusively explanatory, paradigms” (Belletto and Grausam 8).

In addition, the module aims to:        

  • emphasise the importance of periodical and print culture during the Cold War period by encouraging you to explore digitised periodicals and by embedding a periodical-based assignment into the module.
  • frame your understanding of American literature of the Cold War period within a range of theoretical and contextual frameworks, including queer theory, ecocriticism, whiteness studies, the transnational turn, and biopolitics.
  • motivate you to take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of American literature of the Cold War period by supplementing the literary texts you study with relevant government documents, advertisements, legislation, and so on.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Demonstrate an advanced capacity to compare and contrast primary texts of the post-1945 period, making connections between those texts across the module.
  • 2. Demonstrate an advanced and autonomous ability to analyse U.S. literature that appeared during the Cold War period, relating its concerns and its modes of expression to its historical context.
  • 3. Apply at an advanced level current debates in literary studies to U.S. literature in the second half of the twentieth century
  • 4. Engage in archival research focused on periodicals, using resources such as Boston University’s digitised archive of Partisan Review, digitised issues of Encounter magazine and Proquest’s Women’s Magazine Archive.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 5. Demonstrate an advanced ability to digest, select, and organise interdisciplinary material and to trace the development of debate across disciplinary boundaries.
  • 6. Demonstrate an advanced and precise ability to work from the detail of literary texts, with a full appreciation of their formal aspects.

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 7. 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.
  • 8. Through research for seminars and essays demonstrate an advanced proficiency in information retrieval and analysis.
  • 9. Through research, seminar work and essay writing, demonstrate an advanced and intellectually mature capacity to question assumptions, to distinguish between fact and opinion, and to critically reflect on their own learning process.

Syllabus plan

The syllabus will be organised in a broadly chronological way, beginning with an exploration of American Studies as itself a product of the Cold War.

As we move through the module, topics to be covered may include:

  • Cultural Diplomacy and the Origins of American Studies
  • The Rise of the Suburbs
  • Americanness and Un-Americanness
  • Queering Cold War America
  • Privacy, Surveillance, and Confession
  • “Hot” Conflicts in Vietnam and/or Korea
  • The New Left
  • Science Fiction
  • Paranoia
  • Poetry and Nuclear Weapons

Postmodernism and Apocalypse

Writers to be studied may include:

  • Carson McCullers
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Chester Himes
  • James Baldwin, Alice Childress, Patricia Highsmith, John Cheever, E. L. Doctorow, Mary McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich, Don DeLillo, Tony Kushner

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 Teaching22Weekly 2-hour seminars x 11
Guided Independent Study110Seminar reading and preparation (11 x 10 hours per week)
Guided Independent Study168Additional reading, research and essay preparation

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
Periodical research essay252500 words1-9Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up
Essay755000 words1-9Feedback 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
Periodical research essayPeriodical research essay1-9Referral/deferral period
EssayEssay1-9Referral/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. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 50%.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Web based and electronic resources:

The following books and periodicals are available electronically through the Exeter eLibrary:


  • Baldwin, Kate A. The Racial Imaginary of the Cold War Kitchen: From Sokol’niki Park to Chicago’s South Side. Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press, 2016.
  • Barnhisel, Greg. Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy, 1946-1959. New York: Columbia UP, 2015.
  • Belletto, Steven, and Daniel Grausam, eds. American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War: A Critical Reassessment. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2012.
  • Maxwell, William J. F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015.
  • May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War. New York: Basic, 1999.
  • Nadel, Alan. Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
  • Nelson, Deborah.  Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America. New York: Columbia UP, 2002.
  • Piette, Adam. The Literary Cold War, 1945-Vietnam. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009.
  • Schmidt, Tyler T. Desegregating Desire: Race and Sexuality in Cold War American Literature. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2013.
  • Vials, Christopher, ed., American Literature in Transition, 1940-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018.
  • Williams, Paul. Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War: Representations of Nuclear Weapons and Post-Apocalyptic Worlds. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2011.


  • American Quarterly
  • American Literary History
  • American Literature
  • Journal of American Studies

Key words search

Cold War; containment culture; American Literature; American Studies

Credit value30
Module ECTS


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