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DIY Syllabi: 20th and 21st Century Literature

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“On or around December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered or a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that, but a change there was, nevertheless.” It’s one of Woolf’s most famous passages, written five years after the Great War and the contentious, eventually disastrous Treaty of Versailles. Woolf’s primary concern, though, was in the Arts, and namely the movement known as modernism. What was modernism? And what made it “modern”? The world itself, from the latin hodiernus, presents some problems: it confers a fixed timeline to history, and describes the present as a kind of culmination or end-point. So what comes after modernism? (Now we would answer postmodernism – but what does that mean?)

What’s clear is that twentieth and twenty-first century literature, in many cases, represent a stark break from the 19th century novels of Dickens, Austen, Brontë, Thackeray, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dumas, Zola, Trollope, etc. In terms of style, the modernist imperative was to “make it new,” but there are also reemerging themes, political concerns, storytelling devices, and philosophical questions.

The following syllabus is a collection of some of the best online courses in 20th/21st literature, though hardly comprehensive. And while novels are emphasized, students also have the opportunity to explore poetry, drama, literary criticism, creative writing, and more.


Lawrence is one of the more unusual cases in twentieth century literature. In both talent and temperament, he’s reminiscent of John Ruskin: an accomplished painter and prolific writer — novels, short stories, plays, criticism, translations, and travelogues — he was also a harsh social commentator, contrarian, and cultural reactionary, earning him enemies in life and after his death in 1930. He’s alternately been called a proto-fascist, feminist and anti-feminist, piously religious and sadist, scrupulously mannered and vulgar. His most famous novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, faced obscenity charges.

Dr. Catherine Brown’s seven-part lecture series on Lawrence covers Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Sons and Lovers, and Women in Love, considering the author’s artistic approach, sense of humor, religious views, and more. Delivered at Oxford, Dr. Brown is currently the Head of English at New College of the Humanities in London. She specializes in Lawrence and George Eliot.



D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider by John Worthen
A reappraisal of Lawrence, with a focus on his struggle against the class, culture, and country that surrounded him.

Complete Poems by D. H Lawrence
This edition also includes early drafts, Lawrence’s own critical introductions, and an appendix.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer
Dyer’s account of his attempt to write the definitive study of D. H. Lawrence was a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle.


Few writers better represent modernist American fiction than Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. But for what they have in common, their personal and artistic differences are stark. Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s rocky friendship is well-documented: Hemingway the self-fashioned, hyper-masculine war veteran was a domineering figure over Fitzgerald, the boyish romantic. Faulkner tried the ex-pat life but found it unproductive; he had a hard time working anywhere outside Oxford, Mississippi. Each also developed a singular voice: Hemingway’s austere, declarative sentences; Fitzgerald’s florid lyricism; Faulkner’s fundamental difficulty. Perhaps their greatest similarity was a debilitating alcoholism.

Professor Dimock’s course is a wide-ranging study of some of these authors’ best work: Hemingway’s short story collection, In Our Time, and the novels For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not; Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and
The Sound and the Fury
; and Fitzgerald’s Short Stories, The Great Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night. In particular, the class examines these works through geopolitics, experimental narration, and sensory detail. Dr. Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English & American Studies at Yale.


The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
One of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th century, Dr. Dimock references Fussell’s book throughout the course.

Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach
The owner of the 20th century’s preeminent bookstore recounts her time with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and D. H. Lawrence, among others.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s classic memoir gives an intimate, rousing account of 1920s ex-pat Paris.

One Matchless Time by Jay Parini
An engaging, insightful biography by the esteemed poet, novelist and literary critic.



No doubt, the poetry of modernism matched its fiction for ambition, experimentation, political concern, and difficulty. If anything, modern poetry was a more collaborative, concerted movement. When T. S. Eliot dedicated his groundbreaking poem, “The Waste Land”, to Ezra Pound – “Il Miglior Fabbro” — it was well deserved; Pound’s edits were vital. His own criteria for poetry followed three laws:

  • 1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
  • 2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  • 3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Of course, Pound’s Imagism significantly differed from some of his contemporaries — namely, Robert Frost. Dr. Langdon Hammer’s course begins with America’s most famous poet, including studies of “Birches”, “After Apple Picking”, “Fire and Ice”, and others. Students then examine William Butler Yeats’s revolutionary poetry — arguably the century’s most influential — and the poetry of World War I. Four sessions are dedicated to Eliot and Pound, followed by readings of Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams (physician), Wallace Stevens (insurance executive), Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop. Professor Hammer is the author of several books and contributor to the New York Times Book Review and other magazine.


Constellation of Genius: 1922
A review of what Pound called “Year One,” the annus mirabilis of modernism, in which Ulysses and “The Waste Land” appeared.

Harlem Renaissance by Nathan Irvin Huggins
A classic study, placing Hughes’s poetry in context alongside Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen.

Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell by David Kalstone
The story of Bishop’s foundational friendship with Moore and tumultuous relationship with Lowell.



American literature after World War II took a turn. Hemingway’s best fiction was behind him, and Faulkner had published his most famous novels. Fitzgerald was dead by 1940. Where the first half of the century was predominated by modernism, the literature of the last sixty-plus years is much harder to categorize, in part because of its plurality of voices, and in part because of our historical proximity.

Professor Hungerford’s course manages to cover some highlights, beginning with Richard Wright’s Black Boy. From there, we weave through a variety of writers — Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger — many of whom have little in common. More recent works we’ll read include Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Dr. Hungerford is a an editor at the journal Contemporary Literature.


The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction after 1945 edited by John N. Duvall
A comprehensive overview of the period’s literature and history.

Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Butler
On the theory, philosophy, politics, ethics, and artwork of the period.




Literature after World War II also promoted previously ignored, or unknown, international writers. Postmodernism encouraged readers to explore the marginalized “Other,” and, following the culture wars of the 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union, a clear platform emerged, especially for African, Middle-Eastern, and Asian writers. The traditional Western Canon no longer sufficed.

Dr. Viswamohan’s extensive, 40-lecture course examines works from across the globe, including novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. We begin with a primer on the origins of drama, before studies of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, Arthur Miller’s Clara, and Six Degrees of Separation. Novels include Camus’s philosophical The Fall, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. From there, students read works by Philip Larkin, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou, and Amy Tan, among others.


The Norton Anthology of World Literature edited by Martin Puchner
A comprehensive survey by the world’s most-trusted anthology, with introductions, headnotes, maps, and illustrations.

The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry edited by Jahan Ramazani
Includes poetry from the 1950s to present day.

Women’s Literature



MIT’s Women’s Literature course includes a few writers outside our time frame — Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë — but we can cheat a little. (After all, surely Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre influenced modern and contemporary fiction.) More important, we shouldn’t miss out studying Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Toni Morrison, three of the most important writers of the 20th century (respectively, students read Mrs. Dalloway, . Additional authors include Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath, and Margaret Atwood. Course materials are available for download, and the site includes a list of film adaptations, useful resources, and miscellania.


A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa
A chronicle of the friendships between Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf.

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee
The definitive biography from an award-winning author.

Holocaust in Film and Literature

No account of the twentieth century can exist without the Holocaust — nor can any review of the era’s literature. Professor Todd Pesner’s 18-lecture series is a thorough, un-blinkered study of the literature, films, and poetry of the Holocaust’s victims and perpetrators, based on the premise that both must be examined to begin to understand what happened. Students will read two survivors’ memoirs, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s Night; cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Maus; Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader; and Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell. Films discussed include the Nazi Propaganda piece, “The Eternal Jew,” “Conspiracy,” “Schindler’s List,” “Shoah,” and “Paragraph 175.” Pesner is Professor of Germanic Languages, Comparative Literature, and Jewish Studies at UCLA. He has authored several books and is the founder of HyperCities.


Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
Uses new sources from eastern Europe and forgotten testimonies from Jewish survivors to retrace the Holocaust and warn us against complacency.

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
Arendt’s shocking report from Adolf Eichmann’s trial and the “banality of evil.”

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir includes commentary on his own experience in Nazi concentration camps and those of his patients. One of the Library of America’s ten most influential books.

Ideas of the Twentieth Century

Continuing on an historical trajectory, Professors Daniel Bonevac Roy Flukinger’s survey of the twentieth century explores how philosophers, scientists, artists, and poets radically changed the way we think and act in the world. In the first lesson, students compare the historical realities of the last century against the assumed natural progress discovered during the Enlightenment. From there, we move into the revolutionary nineteenth century to set the scene, and then move decade by decade through the twentieth, touching on topics from the rise of realism, to normativity, to modernism, to psychoanalysis, to totalitarianism, and beyond. Simultaneously accessible and erudite.



Ulysses by James Joyce
The most essential novel of the century. Why not?

Introduction to Theory of Literature


The twentieth century also upended reading itself. In light of the revolutions in psychology, technology, philosophy, and politics, how should people interpret art and literature? What is art? What is an author? As Professor Fry explains, these questions weren’t arcane or exclusively academic; they remain relevant, and controversial, today. Beginning with the New Critics, who in their own way formalized the study of literature (and consisted of many prominent novelists and poets), we’ll move on to early Russian criticism, Claude Levi-Strauss and structuralism, Derrida and Deconstructionism, Freud, Jacques Lacan, the Frankfurt School, the New Historicism, Post-Colonial criticism, Queer Theory and Gender Performativity, and more. Each critical method will necessarily also be set against its historical and political context. Finally, students will examine the aftermath of theory — and if it’s still viable.


The Critical Tradition by David H. Richter
The class’s main reference text.

Electronic Literature




Speaking of postmodernism, what about post-postmodernism (or is it now post-post-postmodernism)? What will be the literature of the future? Davidson’s enlightening course makes a good case for electronic literature, or e-lit, which includes interactive fiction, chatterboxes, hypertext, and kinetic poetry. Beginning with e-lit’s origins in 1950s-60s avant-garde art and Cold War technology, the course traces e-lit through the PC and into digital culture, with the internet, smart phone, and tablets. Among the concepts discussed include dysfunction and the uncanny, the sublime and fragments, the automatic, and more. Dr. Mark Sample, Associate Professor of Digital Studies, specializes in experimental literature, new media, and algorithmic culture.

Creative Writing


The advent of the “creative writing” program is another novelty of the past century. We’ve included Wesleyan’s course for aspiring writers and general enthusiasts, alike. (To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, the best way to understand fiction is to write it.) This five-module series is an excellent primer, focusing on plot (crafting structure and scene, and revision), character development (monologue and dialogue, perspective, desires and goals against conflict), setting and description (or world-building), and style. Finally, students will will draft a complete story, narrative essay, or memoir between 8–15 pages, which will be peer-reviewed, revised, and resubmitted. The course’s four instructors have published over a dozen novels and won numerous awards, including features in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and O: The Oprah Magazine.

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