ENGLISH 472 - Twentieth-Century American Literature
Winter 2020, Section 001 - Race and Ecological Catastrophe in 21st-Century Fiction
Instruction Mode: Section 001 is  In Person (see other Sections below)
Subject: English Language and Literature (ENGLISH)
Department: LSA English Language & Literature
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Both race and ecology are prominent issues today, but what is their relationship? More specifically, what is the relationship between racism and ecological catastrophe? The current situation might seem paradoxical. In the United States, the environmental movement has always been—and remains—overwhelmingly white. Yet the victims of ecological disaster are, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly the poor, and, disproportionately, poor people of color. Think of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the continued suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. A global view would only emphasize the greater vulnerability of those with few resources. This is true whether one looks at past environmental devastation or the probable consequences of global heating.

What does contemporary fiction have to do with the twin issues of racism and ecological catastrophe? How does it approach them—both separately and together? What might fiction tell us that is unavailable from the social and natural sciences? To what extent is it literariness itself—the formal features of the novels we’ll be considering—that proves the vehicle for understanding? Do writers focus on their own ethnic groups? Should they?

These are among the central questions the course will address, through reading, discussion, and writing.

The novels, perhaps with one additional work, are:

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)

Toni Morrison, A Mercy (2008)

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (2013)

Omar El-Akkad, The American War (2017)

Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God (2017).

These novels and novelists can be categorized in any number of ways. Five can be mentioned here. First, the works themselves divide, or are internally divided, between a concern with actual environmental destruction, past or present, and the projection of horrific futures in the wake of ecological calamity. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach? Second, accordingly, how do these novels imagine the relationships among past, present, and future? Third, to what extent is race, and especially the race of the author, a key driver of the plot? In this context, how might we avoid the common error of treating whiteness as a norm, such that only other races are marked as such? Fourth, how does the author’s date of birth (ranging, among the five writers listed above, from 1931 to 1982) and hence age at the time of publication influence the “take” on these issues? And fifth, what does it mean to be an American writer or to compose an American novel? With Morrison and Erdrich, this is unproblematic. But Ozeki, though born, raised, educated, and employed in the U.S., now spends much of her time in Canada; El-Akkad is from Egypt, was raised in Qatar, moved to Canada when he was 16, and only recently relocated to Oregon; and Mitchell, from England, has lived in various countries but not the U.S. Yet all of these novels are at least partly set in America. In short, how does a broadly international context help us understand the United States, contemporary fiction, and the issues at the center of this course? To help us address these and other questions, we may read a small amount of literary criticism and theory.

Course Requirements:

Writing: 15-18 pages, normally in 3 essays. No exams.


ENGLISH 472 - Twentieth-Century American Literature
Schedule Listing
001 (REC)
 In Person
TuTh 10:00AM - 11:30AM

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