Graduate Course Description

350:654 - American Literature and Working Life

Course No:  350:654
Index # - 15991
Distribution Requirement:  A5, C, D
Monday - 9:50 a.m. 
MU 207

American Literature and Working Life

Kristin Grogan  

This course explores the relationship between American literature and labor. The course introduces students to literary representations of working life, to US proletarian literature, and to the revolutionary imagination. Beginning briefly in the 19th century, most of the course will concentrate on 20th century and contemporary literature, and while we will touch on many genres we will concentrate particularly on poetry and poetics. Our collective close readings will open onto larger questions about the status of the work of art and artmaking. Do literary work and work in general share a fate? What is the relation between the artwork and the commodity in industrial (and postindustrial) capitalism? And how have changes in labor shaped the way that literature is read and written? Is making art a refuge from the unfreedom of waged labor, or is it another kind of unfreedom? Can art illumine a pathway to a world beyond work?
A rich array of primary texts, from Walt Whitman to Anne Boyer, will be situated within historical developments in labor and labor politics—Taylorism and Fordism, American communism, immigration, the rise and decline of unions, the office, clerical work, housework and reproductive labor, clinical and care work, and precarity. This historical grounding will be enriched by our reading of key works in labor studies and conceptually driven seminar discussions. Throughout the course, students will be introduced to concepts including the labor theory of value, commodity fetishism, and the wage; immaterial, affective, productive and reproductive labor; anti-work and the refusal of work.

The course is appropriate for students with broad interests in American literature, Marxist theory and aesthetics, and a particular interest in poetry. No prior experience of labor history or theory is required, and all theoretical discussions will assume no existing knowledge.

Seminar participation: 10%
Informal writing (responses to readings; provocations for seminars): 10%
Presentation of preliminary work for final paper: 10%
Final paper: 70%

Primary texts may be drawn from: Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lola Ridge, Agnes Smedley, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Lorine Niedecker, Tillie Olsen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Timothy Donnelly, Anne Boyer, Sandra Simonds.

Critical and theoretical work by: Marx and Engels, Kathi Weeks, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Maurizio Lazzarato, Rosa Luxemburg, Silvia Federici, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Melinda Cooper, Barbara Foley, Jackie Wang, Sophie Lewis, Michael Denning, Cedric Robinson.