When scholars of literature want to define the category of "the literary," some point to uses of language that might seem out of place in everyday speech and thus are examples of exclusively written forms. Such scholars might refer to formal conventions (such as rhyme in a lyric poem) or to idiosyncrasies of literary language that reject limits of spoken discourse (such as a narrator’s ability to speak a character’s mind). The starting point for this course is the inkling that written language can never rid itself completely of traces of everyday talk and that this irreducible sonic, social dimension of language is paradoxically just as vital to literature as the uses of language that set it apart. To pursue this line of thinking, members of the course will examine the phenomenon of literary modernism from the point of view of its fascination with the tensions between conventions of literary language and everyday talk as a social behavior. We will read modernist texts that take up the habits of speech of particular social groups as matter of experimentation in methods of storytelling. The course focuses on works by authors conventionally considered pioneers of modernist style (Conrad, Stein, Faulkner) and works by African-American and Native-American authors (Hurston, Zitkala-Ša, Mosley), whose writings are broadly considered peripheral to modernism when they are considered in relation to it at all.
This is a writing intensive course, and students will be required to write either in or for each class. Through their writing, students will learn how to take a principled position on difficult texts that engage questions of voice and vernacular in modernist literature. We begin by building a solid foundation of methods for gathering literary evidence, focusing on how distinctive formal elements of a work of art can shape and constrain readers’ attention. We will also read excerpts from a work of Linguistic Anthropology about the concept of “voice” to get a firmer grasp on the ways that formal nuances within the same language can carry over into writing.
The first unit addresses the peculiar ways in which Conrad and Stein hold up habits of speech and talk for aesthetic consideration. For instance, we will address Stein's use of urban black vernacular in "Melanctha" in terms of its realistic values, but also in terms of its disarming appearance as having been overheard -- even when spoken language appears as dialogue attributed "directly" to a character.
Encounters with the formal peculiarities of Conrad’s and Stein’s novels will culminate in the first major writing assignment: a paper that requires students to construct a thought process out of a series of close engagements with passages of text. In preparation for this assignment, in-class workshops will address some of the basic components of a written argument: the introduction of a difficulty or problem, functional units of organization (sentences, paragraphs, sections), and a discussion of the implications that grow out of textual analysis. Throughout the semester, students will reinforce these writing skills through short response papers and by reading and commenting on each other’s work.
In the course’s second unit, we read Hurston’s and Zitkala-Ša’s ethnographic works alongside their fictional texts. Juxtaposing both modes of these authors' writing invites us to consider how methods of storytelling and social-scientific or mythographical investigation construct relationships between speaker and the subject of a tale and/or the subject of analysis. Students will have an opportunity to apply linguistic-anthropological concepts to their observations about language use in their own lives and will be asked to reflect on how to present these observations.
The final unit of the course will focus on detective fiction and film noir. Although the cinematic medium foregrounds the visual aspect of the mysterious worlds of film noir, this course considers the genre’s distinctive sonic elements, especially its representation of voices and habits of speech. The class will take a look at the perspectives of two critics of film noir as it evolves between the 1940s and 1990s.
The second major writing assignment of the semester requires students to use the skills of textual analysis we will have practiced all semester to embark on literary-critical projects. In-class discussions will cover the basics of literary scholarship, focusing especially on the value that the different kinds of sources we will have read can bring to intellectual work on literature: theoretical sources, ethnographic and autobiographical works by an author, different fictional texts by the same author, and critical sources. Students are encouraged to pursue their own curiosity about the literary phenomenon of voice, but here is a smattering of the kinds of questions students might ask:
Why did the modernist avant-garde make the vernacular a focal point of artistic experimentation? What is at stake politically and ethically when an author attempts to represent the speech of a particular social group to which he or she does not belong? Inversely, what political challenges arise when a member of a group takes it upon herself to formally represent her culture as a set of expressive habits? How do the speech patterns of particular social classes and ethnic groups become the grounds for understanding relations of power and for envisioning social change?