This course will take place on Zoom.
This course will focus on a selection of short stories, memoirs, and novels that portray the lives of those at the very bottom of the social ladder, existing in what has been variously described as “a nether world” (Gissing), an “underworld” (London), and a “maelstrom in which real life is reduced to its lowest terms” (Grove).
We will explore the unique qualities of this literature, as opposed to other forms of writing, in depicting the lives of the dispossessed. What (if anything) does literature have to offer that social science, for example, cannot? On the one hand, this domain is surely not one in which “Art for Art’s Sake” should prevail. On the other hand, at what point might social criticism and political ideology interfere with the capacity of literature to engage the reader? Course readings will be diverse enough to test these limits and probe for answers to such questions.
With readings covering a span of over 130 years and set in a variety of locations, discussion will naturally lead to questions about the influence of time and place in the experiences of the underclass. Is the existence of an underclass inevitable? Has there been a difference in the composition of the underclass over time and in different places? Have literary works themselves developed in their approaches to dramatizing life at the bottom? Course readings will include the work of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Frederick Philip Grove, Robert Tressell, Atticus Lish, and others.
Books to Purchase (will be available at Argo Bookshop during the weeks prior to the course beginning):
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics)
- Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (9780141042701)
- Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn (WW Norton)