English 115: The American Experience Fall 2009

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Daniel Biegelson FALL 2009
Office: Bartlett Hall 462 Bartlett Hall 125
Office Hours: MW 12:05-1:05 MWF 11:15-12:05

Our Shared Purpose

The aim of this course is to explore a critical decade in American history by taking an
introductory tour through that decade's cultural productions. On October 29, 1929, or
Black Tuesday, the American stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. The
Depression seemed to call into question a whole host of ideas and beliefs tied up in the
concept of modernity. During the 1920s people generally associated power and wealth with
urbanization and industrialization, found hope in rapid technological change, and identified
progress with shifting social mores and the rise of mass or popular culture. If the
Progressive 1920s was a period of concentrated wealth and blind optimism, the 30s was a
period of reflection, revolution, reaction, and debate. Thus, we can think of the works we
will be investigating as engaged in a serious conversation (sometimes amiable, sometimes
enraged) over how to best come to grips with a modern world. Was this a period of
destruction and decay, a period of revolution and utopian possibility, or both?
During the 1930s people's beliefs were called into question and so were existing
artistic forms. When American Studies scholar Warren Sussman calls "the children of the
1930s…the people of the picture," he throws into quick relief how the development and
proliferation of new media, i.e. photography, film, and musical recordings, challenged the
authority of older artistic media, i.e. painting, print, and live performance, to encapsulate and
convey the important "truths" of the period. And because we are focusing on a variety of
cultural mediums—literature, cinema, documentary, photography, and reportage—we will be
taking up the central aesthetic questions of the period, namely, what is the relationship
between "art" and "entertainment," what is the role of art in society, or, more specifically,
what is the political value or use of art? Importantly, we will not only ask how the artists we
will encounter this semester answered these questions in their own work, but also ask
ourselves whether or not their answers help us to navigate our own world today.
In addition, while we will—to the best of our abilities—place the works under
consideration here in historical context, we will also explore what these works teach us about
the historical context out of which they arise. That is, this course proceeds from two
assumptions. First, that a "text" is simultaneously an aesthetic and social document, and
second, that the meaning of "text'" is constructed through the act of reading. Thus, this
course emphasizes connective or comparative thinking. Finally, as our friend, Warren
Sussman has noted, it is during the 1930s that we encounter frequent use of the term, "The
American Dream." As such, all of the works here present us with a vision of America that
we will seek to identify and scrutinize. Thus, we will want to keep a number of questions in
mind, such as: How do the artists, historians, and writers under consideration here define
America? Do they convey certain expectations in regards to the American Dream? Do their
works portray obstacles to achievement? Do their works express a desire for or fear of
inclusion in American society? And do the issues that these works reflect upon demand our
attention today?
Finally, in the last quarter of the class, will seek to examine how the thirties has been
poked, prodded, and re-imagined vis-à-vis an investigation of cultural products from other
historical moments. We might want to think about why folk music reemerged in the 1960s,
or why the seminal album (and the music magazine) that kick-started (and documented,
respectively) the alternative-country scene of the 1990s was named No Depression? The last
few months saw the release Public Enemies, a film about a 1930s gangster. Is there something
to this communion with the past? What might we make of such efforts? Thus, this course
will hopefully provide us with an inkling of how people imagined America in the 1930s, and
also with evidence for our own interpretation of the American experience.

Required Texts:
"Waiting for Lefty" by Clifford Odets (play)
Jews Without Money by Mike Gold (novel)
Miss Lonelyhearts and the Day of the Locust by Nathanial West (novel)

All books are available at the UMass Bookstore. All students are required to utilize Spark as
all other course readings will be posted there.

Modern Times (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1936, 87 minutes)
The Grapes of Wrath (dir. John Ford, 1940, 129 minutes)
Scarface (dir. Howard Hawks, 1932, 93 minutes)
To be announced

We will watch the films in class. If you miss a screening of a film, or want to take a second
look (which I highly recommend if you are writing a paper on it), most films are available
through the Five Colleges Library system. We will also watch supplementary documentary
films periodically.

Basic Course Policies:

Discussion/Participation/Attendance: 30%
Research Assignments: 10%
First Short Paper: 15%
Second Short Paper: 15%
Final Paper: 30%

Attendance and Participation:

This is a seminar-style class and is built primarily on discussion and analysis. The class does
not work unless you take ownership of our discussions. Participation means being prepared
for, and contributing to, the discussion with questions or insights, as well as listening
attentively to your classmates’ contributions. Attendance is imperative. You are allowed three
absences, after which you risk course failure.

As part of class participation, you are responsible for keeping a journal of discussion
questions (as opposed to questions of definition) for each day's reading or viewing. This
means attentive, careful reading (or watching or listening). The purpose of this journal is
two-fold. First, I believe that we learn best by asking questions. Asking a question requires us
to admit that there is something that we don't know or understand, which can be difficult,
but also fruitful. If everyone prepares two observations or questions for each class, we’ll
never have to suffer through painful silences. Second, keeping a running log of the questions
that interest or concern you will help you write your final paper. Looking over your journal
will help you notice patterns that you can develop into an interesting argument.

Research Assignment:

If you scan our course schedule, you will notice that there are no "texts" listed after
Thanksgiving. This is in part because we will be deciding together what to examine, and in
part because you will be responsible for identifying and sharing with the class cultural
products that revisit the 1930s. As such, you will be responsible for turning in a 2-page
outline or paper that identifies the cultural product, explains why you think the work harkens
back to the 1930s, and what you think that work suggests about its historical moment.

Short Papers:

You will be responsible for writing two short (2-3 page) papers. Paper topics and further
instruction will be assigned or given later.

Final Paper:

You will write a 5-7 page critical paper that traces some symbol, myth, or theme through at
least three of the works we have discussed, and explores what that given symbol, myth, or
theme indicates about the cultural and/or historical climate of the 1930s.

Late Work:

All work is due in class on the specified date. Exceptions will be made only in the case of
documented illness or emergency. Your grade on an assignment will drop by one full letter
for each day it is late. Work received more than three days late will not receive credit.


It is fine to use other people’s words and ideas in your writing, as long
as you acknowledge the source. Failure to do so constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism
includes (but is not limited to) inadequately citing or paraphrasing a quotation,
purchasing a paper online, copying another student’s homework, and submitting
work you wrote for another class. Suspected cases of plagiarism will be handled
according to the University’s Academic Honesty Policy, which can be found at

Course Schedule

Week 1


FRI. SEPT. 11 Franklin D. Roosevelt "The Forgotten Man" radio address,
April 7, 1932

Week 2

MON. SEPT. 14 A Decade in Historical Review
The Panic is On: The Great Depression (Documentary)

WED. SEPT. 16 Cultural Poetics and the Revolutionary Aesthetic
Kenneth Burke " Revolutionary Symbolism in America"
Joseph Freeman "Introduction" to Proletarian Literature in the
United States: An Anthology

Franklin D. Roosevelt "Nomination Address" July 2, 1932

FRI. SEPT. 18 The Great Depression and Proletarian Protest
Clifford Odets "Waiting for Lefty"
Meridel Le Sueur "I was Marching"
Tillie (Lerner) Olson "The Strike"

Week 3

MON. SEPT. 21 Mike Gold "Proletarian Realism"
Mike Gold Jews Without Money// (Introduction, Chapter 1-8)

WED. SEPT. 23 Mike Gold Jews Without Money (Chapter 9-15)

FRI. SEPT. 25 Mike Gold Jews Without Money (Chapter 16- 22)

Week 4

MON. SEPT. 28 Charlie Chaplin Modern Times

WED. SEPT. 30 Charlie Chaplin Modern Times
John Dos Passos "The Writer as Technician"

FRI. OCT. 2 Tille (Lerner) Olsen "I Want You Women Up North To Know"
Filipe Ibarro "Where the Sun Spends the Winter, San Antonio,
Texas" 1934 letter from New Masses
Edwin Rolfe "Asbestos" & "Season of Death"
Joseph Kalar "Papermill"
Meridel Le Sueur "Women on the Breadlines"

Week 5

MON. OCT. 5 Richard Wright "We of the Streets"
Kenneth Fearing "$2.50" "Dirge" & "Denoument"
Langston Hughes "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria" "Goodbye
Christ" "Ballad of Roosevelt" & "Park Bench"

WED. OCT. 7 The Dust Bowl : The Sharecropper, the Tenant Farmer, the
Migrant Worker and the Documentary Impulse

James Agee and Walker Evans excerpt from Let us Now Praise
Famous Men

William Stott excerpt from Documentary Expression and Thirties

FRI. OCT. 9 Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White excerpt from You
have Seen Their Faces

Sterling Brown "Sharecropper"

Week 6


MON. SCHEDULE John Ford The Grapes of Wrath

WED. OCT. 14 John Ford The Grapes of Wrath

FRI. OCT. 16 John Ford The Grapes of Wrath


MON. OCT. 19 John Steinbeck excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath
Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads

WED. OCT. 21 Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads (continued)
Zora Neale Hurston excerpt from "Go Gator and Muddy the Water"

FRI. OCT. 23 Hawks Nest Tunnel and the Documentary Impulse
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber excerpt from Chapter 4
"Dying for a Living" from Trust us, we're experts!: How
Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with your Future
(pgs. 75-87)
Muriel Rukeyser excerpts from "Book of the Dead"


MON. OCT. 26 Jim Crow and The Fight of the Century
Richard Wright "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An
Autobiographical Sketch"
Langston Hughes "Let America Be American Again"
Zora Neale Hurston "The Ocoee Riot"

WED. OCT. 28 Richard Wright “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite” (1935)
Westbrook Pegler "The Olympic Army" (1936)
Bob Considine “The Louis-Schmeling Fight” (1938)
Bill Gaither "Champ Joe Louis" (1938-1939)
Memphis Minnie "Joe Louis Strut"
Maya Angelou Chapter 19, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

FRI. OCT. 30 The Fight (American Experience Documentary)


MON. NOV. 2 The Spanish Civil War and the Coming of WWII
Ernest Hemingway "Dispatches from Spain"
Herbert Matthews "Dispatches from Spain"
Spanish Civil War Letters from American Volunteers

WED. NOV. 4 Genevieve, Taggard, "Ode in a Time of Crisis"
Sol Funaroff "The Bull in the Olive Field"
Edna St. Vincent Millay "Say that We Saw Spain Die"
Ernest Hemingway "On the American Dead in Spain"
W.H. Auden "September 1, 1939"

FRI. NOV. 6 The Grotesque and the Outcast: Hollywood, the Gangster and
the Detective

"The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930" (Hays Code)
Jack Laits "Dillinger 'Gets His'"
Raymond Chandler excerpt from "The Simple Art of Murder"

MON. NOV. 9 Dashiel Hammet "Zigzags of Treachery" & "Death on Pine Street"


FRI. NOV. 13 Nathanial West Day of the Locust


MON. NOV. 16 Nathanial West Day of the Locust

WED. NOV. 18 Nathanial West Day of the Locust

FRI. NOV. 20 Scarface


MON. NOV. 23 Scarface

WED. NOV. 25 Scarface (Discussion)



MON. NOV. 30 The 1930s Revisited in Form and Content


FRI. DEC. 4 Research Assignment Due




FRI. DEC. 11 LAST DAY OF CLASS Final Paper Due

(This schedule is subject to change)

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