Spring 2021 Undergraduate English Courses

358:436 Seminar: The Culture of British Imperialism at its Peak (1875-1925)

01     09294   KUCICH  MTH  9:50-11:10 AM 

Topics in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture:The Culture of British Imperialism at Its Peak, 1875-1925

The seminar explores the profound impact the British Empire had on the nation’s culture (and vice versa) during the period when, at the Empire’s peak, it occupied one quarter of the surface of the globe. Defining “culture” broadly—as literature, primarily, but also as painting and sculpture, ethnography, evolutionary theory, historiography, “popular” culture, and even “scientific culture”—we will explore the basic question: what are the cultural origins of imperialism? How did culture help create, or modify, the Empire? During this period, most works of British fiction as well as writing within a broad range of other cultural areas were preoccupied with questions about the Empire's viability, its moral justifications, its mixing of white and non-white peoples, its potential sexual enticements and dangers, and its role in shaping the social values of ordinary British citizens. A broad approach to British imperial culture can illuminate how the Empire was entwined with virtually every aspect of British self-consciousness—even among those who never left their homes in England—and how culture sometimes abetted (but sometimes also critiqued) imperial expansion. It can help us understand how writers and artists promoted empire, but also how they resisted it, criticized its worst features, and struggled to make moral judgments about imperial practices. It can also tell us a great deal about our own experience today, as citizens of what is, for the moment, the dominant imperial culture in the world.

We’ll read novels, short stories, and a few non-fictional works by Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, Olive Schreiner, Robert Louis Stevenson, and E. M. Forster. In addition, we’ll read works by Charles Darwin on evolutionary theory and Benjamin Kidd on “social Darwinism”; nineteenth-century historians of empire such as J. R. Seeley; George Stocking on Victorian anthropology and ethnography; and, most centrally, a recent historical analysis of the empire by Bernard Porter. We’ll also watch two films—Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and John Huston’s The Man Who Would be King—to explore what happens when imperial culture makes its way into cinema, and we’ll take a look at how the Empire was represented in the visual arts.

One short and one long paper, both of which will require independent research (though a great deal of guidance will be provided), as well as two book reports on outside readings.  There will be a few quizzes and discussion threads.