ENGL 622, Fall 2001

Nicolas Witschi
Department of English
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5331

The Cultural Legacies of an American Year

When The New Yorker magazine first appeared in February of 1925, founding editor Harold Ross assured readers that his magazine would be different. Unlike the mass of magazines in national circulation, The New Yorker would not temper and dilute its content in order to achieve the common denominator necessary for national success. Catering to a very specific audience and to very specific tastes, The New Yorker appealed to an artistic sensibility founded on a social hierarchy that only New Yorkers would appreciate. Publishing in and for New York, Ross thus reversed the assumption that what counted in his city would also play in Peoria. Not surprisingly, Harold Ross was in 1925 not alone in the game of defining taste. As this seminar will explore, the lines of artistic and social hierarchies were being evaluated and redrawn across the spectrum of cultural production, involving multiple intersections between the fields of literature, film, history, science, education, and a burgeoning middlebrow sensibility. As a single year, 1925 exemplifies quite well the conflicts and compromises encountered by American artists in their efforts to generate a uniquely American culture. The resulting legacy, one profoundly marked by distinctions of taste and privilege, still governs American perceptions of what constitutes "high" culture and "good" art.
In literature, for instance, Modernism comes head to head with late Realism. Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter exemplifies his maturing into a style learned from Gertrude Stein, whose The Making of Americans also appears in this year. Two further landmark texts in American Modernism, The Great Gatsby and In Our Time, are also published. However, this same year also sees the publication of successful novels by two inheritors of the Realist tradition, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, plus Yezierska’s Bread Givers and also Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, a text that sits uneasily between the two poles. Meanwhile, Alain Locke’s The New Negro anthology helps launch the Harlem Renaissance, signifying yet a third direction in the meeting of Modernism and socially-minded literature. Along the lines of taste-making and social hierarchy, plans to establish The Book-of-the-Month Club are undertaken in 1925. And in the intersection of law, science, and education, the pivotal Scopes Trial in Tennessee features the creationist argument of an aging William Jennings Bryan pitted against Clarence Darrow’s defense of the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools. This particular battle also represents another aspect of 1925 that Harold Ross’s rationale for The New Yorker underscores, namely the dynamic between the presumed center of New York and the periphery of the rest of the nation. Indeed, New York’s situation as producer of popular culture is in at least one respect challenged by Chicago, where Al Capone succeeds Johnny Torrio as head of the city’s bootlegging operations, thus beginning a career that would rapidly raise Capone to the status of cultural icon and media celebrity. Finally, the widely popular achievements of filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein, Harold Lloyd, and Erich von Stroheim suggest the extent to which cinematic language was beginning to realize both its audience’s tastes and the medium’s many complexities of narrative form.
A cultural studies/historicist examination of what is at stake in literary periodization, this course will explore the many intersections, convergences, and divergences evident in the cultural production of this single year. With an eye towards what they tell us of the legacy of the 1920s, we will consider a number of readings together, mostly novels, films, and a few other notable texts. Additionally, independently undertaken research projects will further broaden our understanding of the range of issues and concerns occupying Americans in this crucial year of stock-taking and line-drawing.
Readings from 1925

Willa Cather, The Professor’s House
John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time

Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith
Alain Locke, The New Negro (1997 rpt. Rampersad edition)
Wm. Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers

Course materials will also include photocopied packets of:
1) poetry, fiction, and reviews from The New Yorker
2) poetry from magazines such as The Dial, Seven Arts, and The Little Review

Additional readings will come from handouts and from secondary sources placed on Reserve at Waldo Library (see bibliography of secondary readings )


Charlie Chaplin, "The Gold Rush"
Lon Chaney, "The Phantom of the Opera"
Sergei Eisenstein, "Battleship Potemkim"

Harry Hoyt, "The Lost World"
Harold Lloyd, "The Freshman"
Erich von Stroheim, "Greed"


Short analytical paper, 4 pages:
Scholarly Book Review:
Oral Report/Final Research Paper:
25% / 25%

Magazine Culture
Algonquin Round Table
Al Capone
Mt. Rushmore
Pablo Picasso, "Three Dancers"
Franz Kafka, The Trial
Ellen Glasgow, Barren Ground
H. D., Collected Poems
Robinson Jeffers, Tamar

The Scopes Monkey Trial (Bryan & Darrow)
The Book-of-the-Month Club (est. early 1926)
Photography—Man Ray, Edward Weston
Architecture—the Bauhaus, Frank Lloyd Wright
Stroheim’s "Greed" and Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899)
Pulitzer Prize/Edna Ferber’s So Big (1924)
Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
James Weldon Johnson, The Book of American Negro Spirituals
Marianne Moore (assumes editorship of The Dial)


Week 1
   popular songs, The New Yorker, et al.
Week 2
   Hemingway, In Our Time
secondary texts:
   reserve: Huyssen, chapters 1-3 (3-62); Susman, chapter 7 (105-21)
Week 3
   Bourdieu, 1-96, 169-75, 386-96, 466-84
   reserve: Naremore, Introduction (1-23)
Week 4
   Yzierska, Bread Givers
Week 5
   Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
secondary texts:
   reserve: Ruth, chapters 2 & 3 (37-86)
Week 6
   Williams, In the American Grain
   poetry (TBA)
secondary texts:
   reserve: Marek, chapter 5 (138-66)
Week 7
   Cather, The Professor's House
secondary texts:
   Michaels, 23-52
   reserve: Rhodes, chapter 2 (44-75); Rosowski, chapter 9 (130-43)
Week 8
NO CLASS - I will be away at a conference on this day (note: see finals week).
Week 9

Today's class will be devoted to cinema. Screenings, readings TBA

N.B. Book Review due today.

Week 10
   Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
secondary texts:
   reserve: Douglas, chapter 1 (31-72)
Week 11
   Locke, The New Negro (selections TBA)
   for comparison, also examine Survey Graphic (March 1925)
secondary texts:
   reserve: Douglas, chapter 2 (73-107)
Week 12
   Bourdieu, 318-28; Michaels, 1-23, 64-85, 135-42
   reserve: Rubin, chapter 3 (93-147); Hegeman, chapter 7 (193-213)
Week 13
Week 14

   Lewis, Arrowsmith (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for 1925)
secondary texts:
   reserve: Naremore, essay by Denning (253-68)

N.B. all remaining assignments, with the exception of the final project, should be completed no later than today.

Week 15

Jazz Age-style potluck dinner (if that's even possible)and presentation of research projects


Last updated: 29August 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Nicolas Witschi