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English 116, American Literature, Fall 2009


Meeting Time (tentative): Thursday, 7-11pm, LPAC 201

Prof. Peter Schmidt

email: pschmid1

LPAC 206 office hours: Mondays and Wednesdays 10:30-11:30am; Wednesdays, 1-2pm; and by appointment

office phone and voicemail: 8156
We will read a fascinating set of works published since 1990, giving you a good sense of the wide range of themes and story-telling techniques thriving in contemporary U.S. fiction as that fiction charts and creates our changing understandings of family, community, and nationincluding adoption, multiracial families, and transnational flows of labor and culture. Some author interviews, book reviews, theories of “postmodernism” and fiction, and other secondary materials will be assigned as well. We’ll read 1 novel per week (along with secondary materials from author interviews, reviews, and theories of postmodern fiction).


  • John Barth, On with the Story
  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex: A Novel

  • Anne Tyler, Digging to America

  • Gish Jen, The Love Wife

  • Toni Morrison, A Mercy

  • Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days

  • Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde

  • Thomas Pynchon, Vineland

  • Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero

  • Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

  • Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo


  • Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

General themes: new forms for defining family, community, nation, memory, history, and fiction itself in an age of multiracial families, adopted children, and global transnational flows. Many of these texts are significantly multilingual, with Spanish and English especially being featured, and they link their so-called “postmodern” experiments with the form of the novel to their thematic explorations of emergent new identities for family, community, and nation. Secondary sources assigned will include author interviews, book reviews, and some theoretical articles on narrative.

All students will do 3 presentations during the semester, including 1 before Fall Break. We’ll have 1-3 presentations per week. Presentations involve: 1) posting a pair of podcasts the night before (a brief dramatic reading and commentary, which will be listened to by everyone before seminar), then 2) leading part of the seminar’s discussion on your chosen author and text. You will receive guidelines beforehand and feedback afterward on your podcasts as well as your in-class discussion leadership.

The final two seminars will involve student presentations on drafts of your final essays, allowing all to get feedback and comments from the class. Topics will be chosen by you in consultation with Peter Schmidt. Your final essay (approximately 10-15pp., not counting your required bibliography) will be due no later than the start of the Spring semester, when you will receive detailed comments on it. For Honors candidates, this essay will serve as a first draft for your Senior Honors Study essay for this seminar. You’ll also take a 1-hour graded open-book comparative essay exam; for Honors candidates, feedback on this exam will help you prepare for your Honors exam in American literature.

Grading breakdown: weekly attendance and participation: 20%; the 3 author podcasts, presentations, discussion leadership, and 1-hour exam: 30%; final paper: 50%. Missed seminars and poor participation will significantly lower your grade.

SYLLABUS reading assignments

Unless otherwise stated, books are available at the Swarthmore College bookstore; articles and other materials are available as printable pdf’s on the English 116 Blackboard site, under Course Documents. Print, read, and bring all assigned secondary materials to class, along with the novel(s) assigned and other materials you’ll need, like your reading notes. Bring this syllabus too.

Sept. 3 John Barth, On With the Story. Use PS’s study questions to guide your reading for the first seminar. Secondary reading: William Nelles, “Stories Within Stories: Narrative Levels and Embedded Narrative,” pp. 350-52. See Blackboard/English 116/Course Documents. A pdf; please print and bring to seminar. Key words/concepts to discuss: diegesis and diegetic ( = story-worlds); and metalepsis (plural: metalepses = crossing a narrative boundary, as from a story’s “frame” to the story-embedded-within-the-story [intrametaleptic], or the reverse, from the inner story to the narrator’s and/or author’s world [extrametaleptic). Don’t mind the jargon; we can define these concepts with examples in Barth so you become “at home” with them: they will be very useful all semester.

Sept. 10 Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex. Secondary readings: Eugenides interviews on Blackboard, plus two other pdf’s: Sue-Im Lee’s introductory chapter in A Body of Individuals: The Paradox of Community in Contemporary Fiction; an excerpt from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Print and bring all secondary readings to seminar, this week and following weeks.
Sept. 17 Anne Tyler, Digging to America. Two pdf’s on the novel of manners: Lisa Zunshine, excerpts from Why We Read Fiction, on contemporary cognitive theory and literary criticism; and Michael Wood’s definition of the “comedy of forgiveness” in fiction, vs. his attack on postmodernism as “hysterical” game-playing.
Sept. 24 Gish Jen, The Love Wife. Required secondary sources on Blackboard: read and print selected Jen materials online, including author interview. Plus: Brian McHale, Postmodern Fiction 3-11 and 26-40 (on modernist vs. postmodern fiction); and McHale, “En Abyme: Internal Models and Cognitive Mapping” [these 2 pdfs are called McHale1 and McHale2 on Blackboard]. While McHale doesn’t discuss Jen, we will see if some of his concepts will help us think about the complexities of Jen’s novel. You’re also welcome to debate and critique McHale’s central ideas in these three pieces.

Oct. 1 Toni Morrison, A Mercy. Also check out the National Public Radio link on Blackboard, where Morrison will read excerpts from the novel! Required secondary readings: Sue-Im Lee on Morrison’s Jazz and Paradise [do Lee’s insights re “community” in earlier Morrison apply to A Mercy?]; and David Foster Wallace’s essay on TV, fiction, and irony [for use more with Whitehead, Oates, and Pynchon than with Morrison]. Optional: a recent Philadelphia Inquirer news article on Blackboard on a prominent 18th-and 19th-century Philadelphia family, the Chews, whose wealth came from a slave plantation in Maryland (relevant for A Mercy). All materials available on Blackboard.

Oct. 8 Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days. Blackboard: Colson interview; a reading group guide and study questions for John Henry Days; and an essay on John Henry Days by Charlotte Hagood.
Fall Break
Oct. 22 Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde [excerpts: see PS’s reading assignment for this novel]. Further critical materials to be announced later.
Oct. 29 Thomas Pynchon, Vineland. See online Pynchon materials in Blackboard, including the online Vineland Wiki and two pdf articles on Pynchon: “Mediating the Past: Narrative, History, and Teaching Vineland,” by Robert McLaughlin; and “Pynchon’s Polyvocality,” by Gary Thompson.
Nov. 5 Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero. Blackboard: NPR interview and reading link; Metro Times interview; Random House “reader’s guide” study questions; one book review.
Nov. 12 Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing. Selected critical essay in McCabe, plus NYTimes Magazine author interview (1992) online on Blackboard.
Nov. 19 Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo. Required secondary sources: read and print selected Cisneros materials online—a PBS Newshour interview with Ray Suárez, and the publisher’s reading group “study questions” for Caramelo.
Nov. 26 Thanksgiving (no seminar this week). Begin working on your final seminar project, drafting a seminar presentation of your choice into a final paper. For more details, see below.

Dec. 3 Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Three Blackboard secondary readings: Díaz appears on the Stephen Colbert Show; interview excerpts; “Fukú Americanus”: review of Oscar Wao in The Nation.

Dec. 10 and Dec. 17: student presentations on their final paper topics, with in-class feedback. Meet also with Prof. Schmidt to receive comments on your presentation and your topic. Final papers—10-15pp. plus bibliography—are due at the start of the Spring semester, though you are welcome to turn them in earlier! More info about these papers will be given in seminar well before Dec. 19. All students will also complete in December a one-hour graded take-home open-book and –notes exam, featuring a choice of comparative essay topics. For Honors students this will be a “practice” run for your Honors exams; but all students will take the exam and receive a grade and feedback (see “Grading Breakdown” info at the beginning of the syllabus).








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