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Contemporary Literature

See ya, Dickens. Hellooo Peeta and Katniss.

Shmoop's Contemporary Literature course has been granted a-g certification, which means it has met the rigorous iNACOL Standards for Quality Online Courses and will now be honored as part of the requirements for admission into the University of California system.

Have you ever wished you could throw Bleak House out the window and talk about zombies and Kurt Vonnegut all day?

Maybe Vonnegut's not your thing, but there's something undeniably appealing about contemporary literature. It's accessible (it was written during the last 70 years, after all), but complex enough to lay some really heavy themes.

This semester-long course, aligned to Florida content standards, teaches fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journalism, memoir, graphic novel, and everything in between, while also covering the non-literature-reading areas of writing, research, and American social and political history. You'll be at the edge of their seats reading books about:

  • Beatniks and Literary Rebellion: It's amazing how much a run-on sentence can reveal about a post-war cultural climate.
  • The Post-War Years: If "contemporary literature" is defined as anything after 1945, it makes natural sense that books about war reveal serious thematic and stylistic changes in literature.
  • A More Civil America: Research African American Civil Rights Movement nonfiction from the 1700s to today, and uncover both reoccurring and changing traditions and themes.
  • Opposing Voices: Although minorities are often pushed to the side in many of "the classics" taught in school, the authors in this unit have plenty to say about being The Other in the contemporary literature world.
  • Depressing Dystopias: Why do people love writing about the end of the world so much? (Wait…rhetorical question?)
  • Contemporary Nonfiction & New Journalism: Because annotating Susan Sontag while in high school will make you basically unstoppable in college.

Put your old books aside. It's time to get contemporary.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Beatniks and Literary Rebellion

We're kicking off this course with a unit about beat literature, a literary genre that developed immediately after World War II. While American morale was up, up, up, Beatniks (the hippies and hipsters of yesteryear) challenged the status quo with long, rambling, and often brilliant novels and poetry. In this unit, we'll read On the Road (Kerouac), "Sonny's Blues" (Baldwin), and Howl (Allen Ginsberg).

Unit 2. The Post-War Years

As long as war has existed, culture has been affected by it. In this unit, we're going to look at two works of literature dealing with war: Maus (Spiegelman) and The Things They Carried (O'Brien). Perhaps as a result of the complex emotions involved with war, these works take unconventional forms—a graphic novel and a meta-fictional collection of short stories—to show war's impact. (Spoiler alert: It's not great.)

Unit 3. A More Civil America

Contemporary literature doesn't exist in a vacuum, and in this unit, we'll be conducting a case study of civil rights protest literature through the ages. How have Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches resulted from Phillis Wheatley's poetry? Is Kathryn Stockett's The Help a modern extension of Frederick Douglass? Shmoop's not one to judge, so we'll let you decide. Via research paper.

Unit 4. Opposing Voices

A lot of what we read in school can get monotonous: Young Caucasian boy comes of age, something bad happens, and he overcomes it. Luckily, we have just the remedy for a case of the Contemporary Lit Blahs—a unit chock full of works about being "the Other" in a world that isn't always easy on minorities. You'll read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (Alexie), selections from Other Voices, Other Rooms (Capote), poetry by Sylvia Plath, and essays, speeches, and manifestos by some of the most brilliant writers since Shmoop first picked up a pen and paper.

Unit 5. Depressing Dystopias

Many believe that children are our future. The authors of "Harrison Bergeron" (Vonnegut), The Hunger Games (Collins), and The Road (Vonnegut) beg to disagree: The future is a bleak, terrible, post-apocalyptic place, and each of this unit's stories feature young adults being ravaged by a horrible dystopia. Why are world-ending stories so popular in contemporary lit? Pack up your emergency kit and read this unit to find out.

Unit 6. Contemporary Nonfiction & New Journalism

Me, me, me, me, me, me. While the idea of being assigned to write a magazine article about advances in modern medicine and turning it into a thousand-word reflection about your high school crush may sound pretty ridiculous to us, it was a big part of the development of nonfiction in contemporary literature. This final unit focuses on new journalism, and nonfiction's experimental turn at the end of the 20th century. Plus, there'll be a culminating project. Obvi.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 2: Kerou-Whacked

Shmoopers, meet Sal Paradise and his band of merry men. In On the Road, you'll be introduced to the U.S. that your parents and grandparents love to wax poetic about.

An illustration of a pickup truck.
How's about a lift to Denver? All the cool kids are there already.

Sal starts out by just feeling bored with his life. But one day, a friend of his named Dean Moriarty shows up on his doorstep looking for an adventure.

And hey, why not?

It quickly becomes obvious why dudes like Dean and Sal love to drink. They are restless souls, never happy with being in one place for too long—physically or mentally. So even as Sal hops from truck to truck to get himself across the United States on his big ol' road trip, he also feels the need to take "mental" vacations from the world.

Enter: the Beat lifestyle.