First-Year Studies: Modern Myths of Paris


This course will explore the powerful hold that Paris exerted on literature in the 19th and 20th centuries, the period when the city became a world capital of artistic, intellectual, and political life. Our guiding focus will be on how writers used the geography of Paris—its streets, monuments, markets, and slums—to reflect on the complexities of modern life, posing it as a place of revolution and banality, alienation and community, seduction and monstrosity. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which the representation of the city allowed writers to question the form and function of literature itself. We will begin with the 19th-century French novelists and poets who made Paris the site of epic literary struggles, including Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, and Émile Zola. We will then see how the city provided fertile ground for the aesthetic experimentations of 20th-century literature in works by Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Georges Perec. Finally, we will see how Paris is experienced as a cosmopolitan and global space in works by expatriates, immigrants, former colonial subjects, and travelers as varied as Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Mehdi Charef, Fatou Diome, and Enrique Vila-Matas. Beyond our focus on close readings of literary texts, students will have the opportunity to read some theoretical considerations of Paris; we will also watch several films where Paris features predominately.