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Modernist Literature

Life stinks and then you die.

All aboard the modernism train! Yeah, modernists were super impressed by trains. And wouldn't you know it? We're super impressed by modernism. We're talking prose, poetry, and historical events in Britain and America between 1900 and 1955. You know what that means: the Great Depression, two Worlds Wars, and a whole lot of existential angst.

This course will get you thinking about how the events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a sense of "mourning" that wriggled its way into almost all modernist writing. You'll also learn how all modernist writers, in one way or another, responded to this general sense of mourning—whether it's Thomas Hardy, who threw up his hands and said we were all doomed; or Ernest Hemingway, who basically told people like Hardy to man up or shut up.

Sure, this stuff is tough to read, but it's tough to read for a reason. We promise.

Course Breakdown

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Unit 1. I Believe in a Thing Called…Uh…

It shouldn't come as a surprise that modernist writers didn't think too much of the modern world and what it was doing to people. In this unit, we're going to focus on the feeling that laid the groundwork for pretty much all modernist literature: the universal despair that spread across the Western world at the start of the 20th century. Our authors of choice? Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, George Santayana, Wallace Stevens, and William Faulkner.

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Unit 2. Newer Viewers

We know that the modernists were a bit bummed out by the stuff that was going down around the start of the 20th century—not the least of which was the decline of traditional religious authority and people's belief in God. As a reaction, some people tried to use literature as a way of repairing their shattered past. But others felt like art in general could do a better job of capturing the modern world if it experienced a shattering of its own. In this unit, we'll see how authors like Ezra Pound ("Hugh Selwyn Mauberley") and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse) tackled this issue.

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Unit 3. You Can't Give In

This unit will show you that modernists—British and American alike—weren't just whiners. They were actually concerned with the fate of the human world. We'll read "To Build a Fire," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Waste Land," excerpts from the Cantos, and last but not least, Brave New World to see how modernist authors were trying to make a change.

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Unit 4. Voices

This unit all about voices that challenge the traditional (read: old white man) view of modernism. And these voices? They often come from people who didn't enjoy the same privileges as Eliot, Hardy, Pound, and company. We're talking about folks like Charlotte Perkins Gilman ("The Yellow Wallpaper"); Stevie Smith, Langston Hughes, and Marianne Moore (lots o' poetry); Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God); and James Baldwin ("Sonny's Blues").


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  • Course Length: 18 weeks
  • Grade Levels: 11, 12, College
  • Course Type: Elective
  • Category:
    • English
    • Literature

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