ELA 11: American Literature—Semester B
20th-century bona fide American Shmoop.
You've tackled everything from Early American Literature to the depressing pre-WWI works we know as "classics." Now it's time to turn it up a notch.
In the second semester of our Common Core-aligned American Literature course, we'll hit you with all sorts of lesson plans, readings, activities, and projects. Here's what's in store:
- Tapping out a beat with the Harlem Renaissance
- Getting poetic with twentieth-century poetry
- Digging into some of literature's Biggest Deals: Tennessee Williams, Toni Morrison, and…Stephen Chbosky?
P.S. ELA 11: American Literature is a two-semester course. You're looking at Semester B, but you can check out Semester A here.
Unit 7. Regional Pride 1870 – Present
Short stories and poems from a wide range of American literary greats will provide ample discussion about different regions within the United States and how they're reflected in literature. A novel study on Huckleberry Finn will be used to examine author's style and tone; nonfiction selections will provide background and information for studies on realism. A continuation of the study on dialect is also a part of this unit—because let's face it, it wouldn't be Twaintime without it.
Unit 8. Jazz and American Change 1910 – 1950
This unit will focus on the movements of the Harlem Renaissance, the Roaring Twenties, and other changes in American literature of the time period—as well as well after the time period, with James Baldwin essays and a complete reading and viewing of A Streetcar Named Desire. After the Southern studies of Unit 7, it's a fascinating look at how American regional literature evolved—and didn't evolve—in a world rattled by post-Reconstruction change.
Unit 9. Novel Study: John (the Man) Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath 1930 – 1945
This unit will focus on an author study—our only author study. And why John Steinbeck? Besides the fact that he loved flying pigs and is Shmoop's personal hero, this unit will analyze why many readers and critics consider Steinbeck to be the quintessential American author. We'll conduct a novel study on The Grapes of Wrath and look at the social/historical/cultural context of the novel and Steinbeck's role in this period of American history. Wouldn't you guess it? It's still relevant today.
Unit 10. The Greatest Generation 1910 – 1960
Everything in this country was better when your great-grandparents were your age, Shmooper—especially the literature. That's why this unit will focus on Modernism and Postmodernism, from experimental e.e. cummings poetry to comparing The Feminist Mystique with The Catcher in the Rye. In a time in American culture where much went unsaid, we'll pay special attention to language, with a study of slang used in modernist writings and other multiple meaning words and phrases.
Unit 11. Civil Rights and Multiculturalism in Literature 1960 – Present
This unit will focus on the Civil Rights movement in America and the great speeches, memoirs, essays, and literature it inspired. Topics such as demonstrations, violence vs. nonviolence, major artists of the movements, and specific multicultural groups will be discussed, and the rhetoric of these speakers and writers will be assessed and analyzed for author's bias, claims and support, and persuasive strategies. A novel study on Toni Morrison's haunted Beloved will help students extrapolate the concepts of literature as history's ghost. Spooky? You bet.
Unit 12. Contemporary Literature 1980 – Present
ELA 11 concludes with a study of the here and now, focused at the high end of young adult texts with contemporary poetry and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. We know, we know: "coming of age" is a big deal in the eleventh grade, so topics such as life changes, academia, graduation, "fitting in" and being different will be the focus of the unit. Natch, the course also finishes with a student choice-driven research paper about the American identity. No, students cannot choose Shmoop as a research topic, but thanks for asking.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 5: Southern Gothic
Welcome to the dark side, y'all.
That's right: we're taking a break from Northern Great Migration and heading down south. Much like America was divided after the Civil War, its literature was too. While the Harlem Renaissance was often celebratory, Southern Gothic notsomuch. We've studied Southern Gothic (or SoGo, as it were) in Semester A, so you might recall that this is where we'll find a healthy dose of the grotesque, a hefty dash of violence, and as much disintegration and decay as the gothiest goth could want.
Yep. This lit is not for the squeamish.
But Southern Gothic literature is full of doom and gloom for a reason: it totally developed in the wake of the Civil War (1861 – 1865). The Civil War, which brought an end to slavery in the South, left behind it a society that was devastated, economically and socially, by defeat. The Civil War forced Southern writers—many of whom were born in the aftermath of the war—to really think about what it meant to be Southern. You don't see this much in the Northern Gothic works of Poe, but you'll definitely see it in the guilt-ridden Southern lit we'll read in this unit.
Southern Gothic, the literature that developed as a result of this questioning, raises issues like:
- Why is violence such a huge part of Southern culture?
- How did the South's history of slavery and racial oppression warp Southern society?
- Why did the South have such a hard time picking itself up after its defeat in the war?
The war itself, of course, was a pretty grotesque experience. And the institution of slavery, which was the bedrock of Southern society for hundreds of years before the war, was even more grotesque. Is it any wonder, then, that Southern Literature has a tradition of violence and defeat as well as Unit 7 Mark Twain-style toe-tappin'?
Put on your Sunday best and shine up those shoes: we're dippin' our toes in southern waters now, friends.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 8.5a: Tennessee the Man
The author on whom we'll be focusing for the next several lesson goes by the moniker Tennessee Williams.
Tennessee Williams: Childhood
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, (the nickname "Tennessee" came later). The Williams family consisted of his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, a brooding, aggressive shoe salesman who traveled frequently; his mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, the daughter of a genteel Southern family not quite as well-to-do as she liked to describe them; and his older sister, Rose. When he was five years old, Williams contracted diphtheria. He nearly died and his legs were paralyzed for nearly two years. Her son's brush with death convinced Edwina—an easily-upset woman by nature—not to let the boy out of her sight. In 1918, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and a year later their third and final child, a son named Dakin, was born.
Williams displayed an early knack for story-telling, regaling his family with made-up ghost stories on vacations, and typing away on the typewriter his mother gave him while other, healthier boys spent their days outside playing. This enraged his father, who teased his son mercilessly for his effeminate qualities and called him "Miss Nancy"—a nickname that meant "sissy." Williams first published his work in 1927, when he won third place in an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine. The essay, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" was written from the point of view of a woman, which further infuriated his ultra-macho dad.
In 1929, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri. He was a poor student but an enthusiastic member of the school's social scene. He joined a fraternity, whose members nicknamed him "Tennessee" for his thick Southern drawl. In 1931, before he had earned a degree, Williams's father demanded that he withdraw from school. Exactly why Cornelius Williams forced his son to drop out is unclear—some accounts say it was because he was flunking; others, because he disapproved of Williams's girlfriend at the time. Whatever the case, he found his son a job with his employer, the International Shoe Company.
Tennessee Williams: First Play
Williams moved back in with his parents in St. Louis. He woke early in the morning to his mother's call of "rise and shine, rise and shine," an extremely annoying habit that he then gave to the matriarch character Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. He then dusted shoes, typed, and did other odd jobs all day at the factory, returned home for supper, and then locked himself in his room to write until three or four o'clock in the morning. Williams was miserable. His unhappiness was increased by the fact that his older sister Rose, who also lived at home, was suffering from schizophrenia and clearly losing her mind.
In 1936, Williams enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis but flunked out of that school, too, just a year later. What kept him going was his writing. Williams was working on several plays, including a full-length play about a pair of sailors who picked up girls (despite the fact that he had never met a sailor and had little personal interest in picking up girls). He was also a member of a local poetry group.
Then, in 1937, things began to look up for Thomas Lanier Williams. He made his theatrical debut. The sailor play, now entitled Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay, was produced in Memphis—the first play ever from the writer eventually known as Tennessee Williams. A St. Louis theater group, the Mummers, produced two more of his plays. Williams then enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he finally received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1938. The following year, Williams received two major awards in recognition of his writing talent—a $100 prize from the Group Theatre and a $1,000 Rockefeller grant. The new financial security was an enormous help to his writing career. With this support he moved to New Orleans to start a new life. He called himself Tennessee Williams from then on.
Tennessee Williams: Plays and Screenplays
After a stay in New Orleans, Williams spent a year in New York working odd jobs as a bellhop, an elevator operator, and a movie theater usher. (For the rest of his life, Williams divided his time between New Orleans, New York, and his other favorite spot, Key West, Florida.) In 1943, he received some devastating personal news. In an attempt to cure Rose's worsening schizophrenia, Williams's parents consented to have a lobotomy performed on their daughter. The controversial surgery, in which the frontal lobes of the brain are sliced in an effort to relieve the symptoms of mental illness, was relatively new and was often performed crudely and incorrectly. The worst of Rose's symptoms went away after surgery, but so did most of the defining characteristics of her personality. She remained in a dreamy, half-conscious state for the rest of her life. Williams never forgave his parents for allowing Rose to have the operation.
By this time, Williams had found an agent named Audrey Wood, who nurtured him throughout his career. She found Williams a job as a screenwriter for the Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie studios. Williams moved to Los Angeles to start work on a script for the studio about a troubled Southern family. The studio rejected his script but allowed him to keep the rights to the story. He decided to adapt it into a stage play. In December 1944, The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago to outstanding reviews. The play is the most autobiographical of all Williams's works. It centers on the Wingfield family with its overbearing Southern mother Amanda, mentally fragile daughter Laura, and angry, suffocated son Tom. For Williams, being able to write freed him from the dysfunction that plagued his own family. "To me it has been providential to be an artist, a great act of providence that I was able to turn my borderline psychosis into creativity," Williams told an interviewer years later. "My sister Rose did not manage this." Three months later the production moved to New York. It was a huge critical hit, nabbing Williams a prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. His career started to take off.
Three years later, in 1947, Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway. The play starred Jessica Tandy as fragile Blanche DuBois and an unknown actor named Marlon Brando as her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Williams personally chose Brando for the part after the actor hitchhiked up to the playwright's vacation home in Cape Cod to audition for him. The combination of Williams's gripping dialogue and Brando's raw, overtly sexual performance electrified audiences—as did the play's frank discussion of lust. As Stanley stalked the helpless Blanche, and the angelic Stella caved time and time again to her desire for her husband, it was as though people were watching sexual attraction play out on stage for the very first time. "People have said that Williams absolutely invented the idea of desire for the twentieth century," English professor and Streetcar expert Philip Kolin has explained. "It was a play that dealt with for the very first time on the American stage, female sexuality and male sexuality."
Williams has since said that the character of Blanche, the dramatic, high-maintenance Southern belle who comes to visit the Kowalskis, was based on his aunt Belle. His brother Dakin disagreed. "Blanche is Tennessee," Dakin said during an interview. "If he would tell you something it wouldn't be necessarily true. And Blanche says in Streetcar, 'I don't tell what's true, I tell what ought to be true.' And so everything in Blanche was really like Tennessee." The play won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. The film version, directed by Elia Kazan and starring all of the original Broadway cast except for Jessica Tandy, premiered in 1951 and won several Academy Awards. Williams was a star.
More professional successes followed. The Rose Tattoo opened in 1951 and won Williams another Tony Award for Best Play. Two years later Camino Real opened, a play that was a critical flop but that Williams called one of his favorites. Two years after that came Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, earning Williams yet another Tony and Pulitzer.
While critics and sophisticated theatergoers celebrated Williams for his groundbreaking work, many in the general public felt that his frank portrayals of things like lust, addiction, and homosexuality were inappropriate. "Many Americans regard Williams as an erotomaniac, for whom the mildest epithets are 'sick' and 'decadent,'" wrote Time magazine. It was not acceptable at the time to be gay—in Williams's play Suddenly Last Summer, a young woman loses her mind after witnessing the brutal murder of her cousin when his homosexuality is discovered. Williams was simply telling the truth—both in his plays, and in his life. In 1947, Williams began a romantic relationship with his secretary, Frank Merlo. They remained partners and companions until Merlo's death in 1963. Though newspapers and magazines at the time referred to Merlo only as the playwright's "longtime secretary" in profiles, Williams did not attempt to hide his relationship or his sexual identity—a revolutionary stance at the time. "Sexuality is a basic part of my nature," he told The New York Times. "I never considered my homosexuality as anything to be disguised. Neither did I consider it a matter to be over-emphasized. I consider it an accident of nature."
Tennessee Williams: Depression and Death
The good times, unfortunately, did not last. In 1957, Williams's play Orpheus Descending opened on Broadway. It was a critical and commercial flop, closing after only sixty-eight performances. Williams became deeply depressed and underwent psychoanalysis. Two more of his plays soon flopped as well. In 1961, The Night of the Iguana premiered and won Williams his third and final Tony Award. The play was his last critical success for a decade.
Substance abuse contributed to Williams's creative collapse. In the mid-1950s, Williams started using drugs and alcohol to deal with his constant anxiety. By the early 1960s, his daily intake of substances had grown to staggering proportions: two packs of cigarettes, as much as a fifth of liquor, plus a handful of pills. Williams was also receiving care from Max Jacobsen—a.k.a. "Dr. Feel Good"—a New York City doctor known for providing his well-to-do patients with prescriptions for vast quantities of mood-altering drugs (his license was revoked after patients died). Williams spoke openly about his dependency on barbiturates, saying that they unblocked his creativity. In retrospect, biographers believe it was the substances that blunted his creative spark.
Grief-stricken after the loss of his partner Frank Merlo in 1963, Williams fell into a depression that lasted for ten years. In 1969, he had a nervous breakdown, and his brother Dakin had him committed to a mental hospital in St. Louis, where Williams stayed for three months. In 1972, the play Small Craft Warnings opened off-Broadway and ran for a respectable two hundred performances. It was the last of Williams's professional successes. He wrote a string of critical stinkers, some of which closed after fewer than a dozen performances. Though he was hurt by the reviews at times, Williams refused to give up his craft. "I'm very conscious of my decline in popularity, but I don't permit it to stop me because I have the example of so many playwrights before me. I know the dreadful notices Ibsen got," he told an interviewer. "So I keep writing. I am sometimes pleased with what I do – for me, that's enough."
And then, finally, it came to an end. In February 1983, while administering his daily medications, Williams choked to death on a medicine bottle cap in his room at the Hotel Elysée in New York City. The seventy-one-year-old was buried in St. Louis. "I always felt like Tennessee and I were compatriots," Marlon Brando said after the playwright's death. "He told the truth as best he perceived it, and never turned away from things that beset or frightened him. We are all diminished by his death." Williams wrote perhaps the best epitaph for himself in his 1975 Memoirs, a book that—like its author—shocked the public for his unsparing discussions of his substance abuse and love life. "I've had a wonderful and terrible life and I wouldn't cry for myself," Williams wrote, "would you?"
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 8.5b: The Start of the Streetcar
In learning a bit about Williams' biography, we mentioned one of his most infamous and both well-received and hotly-debated plays called A Streetcar Named Desire. We hope it might've piqued your interest in some way, as that's the play we'll be reading for the next few lessons.
Since you got a taste of what this play entails in our last reading, go ahead and grab your own hard copy of the play. Let's read Scenes 1 through 3.
When you're finished with the text, hop over to the Shmoop Scene Summaries to make sure you caught all the good stuff:
Talk about drama: Blanche Dubois is the queen of everything dramatic, Stella couldn't be more timid if she tried, and Stanley, well, Stanley's quite the king of his own castle, isn't he. After the drama-filled poker game and the, ahem, incident between the Kowalskis, the tension's so thick you could slice it with a knife—we can't wait to see what happens next.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 8.5a: When Something Nice Goes Rotten
Serious spoiler alert: Sex is essentially a destructive force in A Streetcar Named Desire, though this destruction takes a variety of forms, including literal death, physical violence, mental degradation, the sullying of a good reputation, and even financial ruin.
Sex is one of the major themes of Streetcar, along with various other stuff, like marriage and masculinity, but we'll get more into those a bit later. First off, let's examine the sex appeal of a special dude named Marlon Brando. While there have been numerous adaptations of Williams' infamous play, the one everyone's talking about, A Streetcar Named Desire, came out in 1951 and stars Vivien Leigh of Gone With the Wind fame as Blanche Dubois, and aforementioned Brando, notable for his role in The Godfather, as Stanley Kowalski.
But enough from Shmoop—it's time to check out this film for yourself. We're going to view this thing in parts—after reading Scenes each day, we'll check out the corresponding film bits from it. Start thinking about how the director, Elia Kazan, has interpreted Williams' original play—you might want to take some notes about similarities and differences that you notice as you watch. You guessed it: we'll be writing more about the film and the play in an upcoming lesson.
Today, watch through the end of the "Poker Night" scene, that concludes with Blanche telling Mitch, "There's so much – so much confusion in the world […] Thank you for being so kind! I need kindness now." (around 43:16 in the film). Take notes; you'll be using them in a later lesson.
Finally, for this activity, let's first read this poem by Tennesee Williams, "Life Story."
This poem was written in 1937, a full decade before Streetcar was published, but do you see some similarity between the two?
Answer the following questions in about fifty to one hundred words apiece, and make sure each answer contains at least one quote from the first three scenes or the bio of Williams we Shmooped you earlier in the lesson.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Quiz 8.5b: A Quiz Named Desire
- Credit Recovery Enabled
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11
- Course Type: Basic
ELA 11: American Literature—Semester A
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1