20th-Century British Literature

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“On or about December 1910, human character changed,” Virginia Woolf once said. Whether one agrees with this outrageous claim, it is certainly true that, in the century that followed, Britain underwent dramatic social change and that “when human relations change there is, at the same time, a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” This yearlong course thus explores a literature marked by fracture, as well as tradition. In the first semester, we examine how British writers (1900-1945) responded to imperialism, women’s rights, Irish independence, and the effects of two world wars. We read works of canonical High Modernism (by Woolf, Eliot, and pre-independence Joyce and Yeats), alongside less familiar works (by, for example, the Welsh poet David Jones and the Scottish novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon). In the second semester, we examine how the alleged consensus of the postwar period gradually gave way to provocative questions about the nature of Britishness itself. We explore the cultural effects of the dismantling of empire in an era that also saw increased emphasis on regional identities. Who were the “old gang,” and why did Auden call for their death? Why has anti-Modernism constituted such a persistent strain in British writing? Who are Sam Selvon’s Caribbean Londoners, and why are they so lonely? Who thinks oranges are the only fruit? These and other questions shape our conversation. Possible authors: W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, James, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid, W. H. Auden, Noel Coward, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Sam Selvon, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Jean Rhys, Jeanette Winterson, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Caryl Churchill, Alasdair Gray, Paul Muldoon, Martin Amis, Hanif Kureshi, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Daljit Nagra, and others.