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Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students
Transatlantic Women Modernists: Writing Across the Divide
Titles of courses are as important (and interpretable) as titles of novels or poems. You might remember being told to consider a poem’s title as its first line, so let’s parse my title: three words that telegraph ideas about location, gender, and aesthetics; then a subheading that lands on the word ‘divide’ but teases conciliation. In the early decades of the last century, literary experimentation on both sides of the Atlantic was at a high water mark, with authors in the UK and USA striving to transform fiction to make it more intimately reflect the radical changes in politics, culture, economy, race, gender, class and nation that came in modernity’s wake. The liberating currents within what became known as the ‘modernist’ movement were keenly felt but differentially expressed by women writers in these countries. These women came from diverse backgrounds in terms of race, class, education and income, but they all confronted longstanding biases against women’s ambitions to claim for themselves a powerful voice in the public arena. In Britain, novelists and essayists like Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West set out to subvert conventional novelistic techniques to examine how war transforms the body politic; expatriate writers in London like the novelist Jean Rhys, short fiction writer Katherine Mansfield, and poet Una Marson, were all remaking the sounds and themes of contemporary writing based on their experiences of colonialism. In the USA, African American writers like Jessie Fauset and Nella Larson, members of the Harlem Renaissance, were reinventing fiction to speak deeper truths about race, gender, class and American belonging. What connects all these women’s writings was a fervent belief in the transformability of fiction as both art and craft to contest and transform dominant narratives about what literature could represent for and about women, and what lives women might forge for themselves by accessing print culture through linguistically and formally experimental channels.
This course will train you in how to read the rich, complex, and at times challenging works these authors wrote, paying close attention to language, formal innovation, and historical and cultural context. You will experiment in both creative and analytical ways with how to interpret these works in your own writing. You will come away not only with a better sense for what modernism offered these writers, but where its legacies reside in today’s transatlantic world.