Media, Culture, Narrative  
Working Syllabus

Graduate Elective  Spring 2010                                              Office Hours:
Prof. Christopher P. Wilson                                                       Monday 1-2
Carney 435 ex. 2-3719                                                               Wednesday 2-3
You can email me by clicking                  Friday 2-3         and by appointment

Cover for Rise of Silas Lapham

"Reading is not only an abstract operation of the intellect; it puts the body into play and is inscribed within a particular space, in a relation to the self or to others.  This is why attention should particularly be paid to ways of reading that have been obliterated in our contemporary world. . . A history of reading. . . cannot limit itself only to the genealogy of our contemporary manner of reading--in silence and by sight.  It must equally, perhaps above all, take on the task of discovering forgotten gestures and habits that have now disappeared."

                                      --Roger Chartier

"Printing, having found in the book a refuge in which to lead an autonomous existence, is pitilessly dragged out onto the street by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos.
    'This is the hard schooling of its new form. If centuries ago it began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular. And before a child of our time finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colourful, conflicting letters that the chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight. . . "

                                                                                                  --- Walter Benjamin

Course Description

This course attempts to provide a seedbed of common readings and questions for graduate students interested in U.S. literary and cultural history, roughly from the 1850s to the 1930s. More specifically, will look at recent scholarship on the material and cultural placements of various media forms--news writings, popular entertainments like minstrel shows, juvenile fiction, adventure tales, pulp magazine stories, and so forth--adjacent to (and often constituting) what we now think of as "literary" texts. What did Americans read (or entertain themselves with) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how do we introduce such readers into the study of literary and cultural history? How were various forms of media--sentimental novels, newspapers, story papers, dime novels, or even private items like diaries or scrapbooks--produced, distributed, and consumed? To what extent was reading or mass entertainment segmented by gender, stratified by class, shaped by notions of public and private, or inflected by the politics of race, region, and empire? How did cultural newcomers, outsiders, and the oppressed partake of these forms, forge literary identities with U.S. audiences? How do we describe the cross-cultural exchanges and mediations that often occur through forms of writing and reading, and mass entertainment--exchanges that help define social boundaries and obligations, ideas of the past and futurity, pleasure and sensation? These are the kinds of questions many of our readings will address.

To explore this field, our concerns will be interdisciplinary in spirit, trying to bring together recent debates within (and against) the new historicism, ethnic studies, print and visual culture studies, and American cultural and social history. Weekly topics include:  American domesticity and class formation in the industrial era; the connections between gender, reading, and the public sphere; the questions raised by racial segregation in the post-Civil War decades; the generation of local color (and "the Western") in a national and hemispheric context ; the relationships between ethnicity and transnational migration; and the "pulp" variants of American modernism.


  1. Class Participation  (25%)
  2. One class week in which you will serve (in a group) as a "resource" person who will (a) stimulate discussion beforehand, via our list-serve on Blackboard, and (b) serve as a resource and backgrounding expert on that day. (Graded only as part of your class participation.)
  3. Two one-page "reading response" essays, each due in the first and second third of the course, respectively (5 and 10%);
  4. One 4-5 page essay analyzing and evaluating a critical article. (TBA). (25%)
  5. A longer conference paper or teaching project, of approximately 12  pages due at the end of the semester. This paper can build on any of the shorter essays you write, including your 4-5 pp. essay. In fact, I will encourage this strategy. (35%)
Sometime before our final discussion of The Great Gatsby, I would also like to ask you to see (or see again) a "classic" gangster film, preferably either Public Enemy or Little Caesar.

Here are the course texts I have ordered; we will read a few other primary texts as well. Since I hope our reading calendar can reflect class members' interests and input, I would recommend not buying the final two texts on our calendar (Cather and Fitzgerald) until we settle our plan for the intervening weeks. And it will be possible (and, most importantly, workable) in some cases to use an e-text for your readings (where indicated by an "E") rather than the BC Bookstore edition.  All background essays and chapters that are listed as "required" below are on our Blackboard site.  

You may also wish to purchase Dorothy Parker, The Portable Dorothy Parker, although it is quite expensive, and we may only be reading a few stories that will be available on line.  Library versions of these books are all suitable; be forewarned, though, that the Chesnutt tales are quite variable in print.


For this calendar, the designation "(W)" refers to material available through the Blackboard listing for this course, and (R) to materials on Reserve in O'Neill Library. You'll see, however, that the syllabus itself offers some direct links to e-texts and background material as well. (These are generally "public access" versions.)

Jan. 20

Introductory Meeting

The essay by Nancy Glazener, "The Practice and Promotion of American Literary Realism" (W)

For background purposes, I am suggesting that everyone read at least one of the following chapters, each of which covers a different dimension of the period immediately following the Civil War, where we begin. Choose one that interests you, or that fills in a gap in your knowledge of this period:

Meanwhile, if you want a solid introduction to the literary history of the period we're starting in--if, for instance, you've never read anything from this era at all--a reasonable place to start would be Richard Brodhead's essay, "Literature and Culture," in the Columbia Literary History of the United States, ed. Emory Eliott, pp. 467-81. For a good overview of past critical approaches to this period, see the introduction to Amy Kaplan's The Social Construction of American Realism, (R). For a discussion of readership and middle-class culture, you could read the chapter by Barbara Sicherman on W, entitled "Reading and Middle-Class Culture in Victorian America."  The relatively recent Blackwell Companion to American Fiction, 1865-1914 also has several good essays from the period we're covering (this is where the essay by Nancy Glazener on Realism appears)  Trachtenberg's 6th chapter on "Fictions of the Real" also provides a good summary of the 1880s debate over Realism.


Jan. 27



Feb. 3



Feb. 10




Feb. 17

Feb. 24



March 10



March 17


March 24



March 31

Required of all class members:

Two of the four articles in the hypertext issue of American Quarterly--at
These two are:  James Castonguay, "The Spanish-American War in US Media Culture" and  David Westbrook, "From Hogan's Alley to Coconino County: Three Narratives of the Early Comic Strip"

and then, each class member should read the materials from at least one of the following groupings:

A.  Sui Sin Far, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” "Mrs. Spring Fragrance," and "In the Land of the Free" (W)
Yu fang Cho, on Far, empire and “Yellow Slavery” Narratives, from American Quarterly (W)
Recommended:  Min Hyoung Song, "Sentimentality and Sui Sin Far" (W),

B. Mary Antin, brief selections from her memoir The Promised Land  on (W), and the
Timothy Parrish essay (on Antin)
and Werner Sollors essay on Pluralism (W),

C. Richard Harding Davis, “The Reporter Who Made Himself King”  (W)
    José Marti, "Our America," by clicking here  (you can also find this in the Heath Anthology of American Literature, volume 2, which is on Reserve.
   the essay by Amy Kaplan on Romance and Realism in Imperial Fictions  (W)
    Recommended:  the selected journalistic pieces by Marti I've put on line (W);

or D. the selected news essays/columns by Finley Peter Dunne (W). You can also find these in the Heath Anthology of American Literature, volume 2, which is on Reserve.  Plus look at the materials on Irish exile in Chapter 3, "Pillars of Fire," from Matthew Jacobson's Special Sorrows (W)



April 7


April 14
April 21

Required:  F. Scott Fitgerald, The Great Gatsby (and other workshop materials, to be provided--primarily, a few tabloid articles on "high society" murder that I will distribute)
April 28

Workshop night.  We will meet to work collaboratively on the topics you've chosen for your final research paper.
May 5   Last Class Day   Final Papers Due