Literature in the Real World

Literature in the Real World

choose one of the following essay prompts:

    1.Read “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the light of 19th century medicine. How did such medicine view the “female” ailment of “neurasthenia”? What was the “rest cure”? How did such treatment abuse the female form? 


    2.Read (and listen to) “Follow the Leader” in terms of “oral tradition.” What do hip-hop artists like Eric B and Rakim have to say about the artistic possibilities of the human voice? What can our ear understand that our eye might miss? What kind of predecessors led to the oral emphasis of contemporary rap? 


    3.Read “No Name Woman” from the perspective of Confucian ethics on the family.  How does Kingston’s modern outlook on the rights of the individual clash with the traditional, Chinese emphasis on the community? 


    4.View the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink in view of film theory. How does Hollywood function as a global “fantasy factory” and how do the Coen Brothers satirize its manufacturing of dreams? What sort of complications occur when we watch a movie about other people watching movies? What sort of paradoxes occur when the filmmakers write a screenplay about their title character struggling to write a screenplay? 


    5.Listen to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and try to unravel all of its historical and mythical illusions, from Einstein to Robin Hood and from Bette Davis to Cinderella. How is Dylan populating his epic song with figures factual and fictional to make a commentary on American life? 


    6.View Zelig in terms of assimilation and conformity. What is Woody Allen “saying” (and showing) about the American wish to “blend in”? What does the movie’s use of vintage footage say about cinema’s ability to “time travel”? What does Leonard Zelig the Human Chameleon serve as a symbol for the human use of emotional and intellectual camouflage? 


    7.Read Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” in the light of ecology and environmentalism. How is Thoreau a kind of forerunner or grand-daddy for the “subversive science” of conservation and its non-human focus? 


    8.Read “Corsons Inlet” in relation to coastal geography. The border between land and ocean is an intense and dramatic microcosm of Life in flux and chaos—how does Ammons’ poem reflect this? 


    9.Read Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in relation to representative politics. How does Whitman’s “I” seem to stand in for some collective “us”? How democratic is his language? How dictatorial is it? 


    10.Read Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” in relation to feminism. How is Rich’s poem reaching out to and conversing with radical feminist writers of the 20th century? How is feminism a “discipline” as well as a “movement”?


    11.Read Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” in relation to sea-going lore. How do the superstitions, legends, and practices of sailors assert themselves in Crane’s story? How do the myths and beliefs of ocean-faring men differ from their land-based brethren? 


    12.Read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in relation to Cubism, Expressionism, and other schools of modern painting. How does Stevens’ broken-apart poem address the 20th century arts and their interest in abstraction and fragmentation (as opposed to “mirroring” reality more directly)? 


    13.Read Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” in regards to Puritanism. How is Hawthorne’s tale a critique and/or a support of such an outlook and culture? How much of the Puritan outlook still resides in contemporary American morals? 


    14.Read Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” in relation to racial politics. How does “color” (as a clumsy term for “race,” which itself is a suspect term in modern biology) get treated by Hurston and by related African-American writers like Dubois, Garvey, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, etc.? 


    15.Read Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” as a commentary on the American Revolution. Via historical sources, trace out how Washington Irving is writing a commentary on Royalism versus Democracy. How is the story unusual in its preference for a “paternal” dictatorship over a “participatory” freedom? 


    16.Read “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain” as a commentary on near-death experiences. Compare this brief and suggestive poem to articles on the neuroscience of almost-dying. What defines the fine line between survival and demise? How does Dickinson’s poem play on Christian expectations of an afterlife and medical definitions of death? 


    17.Read “Lady Lazarus” in relation to suicide. There is a large literature on the topic of self-killing; how does Plath’s poem respond to our general ideas on this very touchy topic? How does Plath turn a very grave subject into a kind of carnival stunt? What does it mean to turn self-negation into a kind of performance art? 


    18.Read Henry James’ “The Real Thing” in relation to the fine arts of drawing and painting. How does “portraiture” via the written word differ from these “representational” art forms? How does Henry James’ prose function as a kind of verbal portrait? How does the “verbal” differ from the “visual”? 


    19.Read “Howl” as a representation of “bohemianism” or hipster “counterculture.” How is Ginsberg’s poem in the tradition of American radicalism? What sort of “mainstream” values are being denounced? What sort of “alternative” values are being proposed as replacements? 


    20.Read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” from the perspective of our current educational crises. When Emerson wrote this address in 1837,  higher education was generally available only to well-off white Protestant males—how does our modern, multicultural college campuses expand our sense of what at “American scholar” is capable of? 


    21.Read Benjamin Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth” in the light of our current economic crisis. Do the virtues that Franklin promotes lead to selfishness and fiscal imbalance? Does his emphasis on hard work and saving neglect simpler and more sensual pleasures? 


    22.Read (and listen to) “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in terms of radicalism. Is proposing a violent overthrow of a government a form of politics or merely anti-politics? Why do certain people claim that mass media (such as television) undermine political engagement? 



    23.Read “Woman Hollering Creek” in terms of our current immigration debates. What does Cisneros’ story have to say about border-crossing and a sense of belonging? How does it blend together gender and nationality? How does it suggest that relations of a marriage have something to say about the relations between two countries? 



    24.Read Harryette Mullen’s “Sleeping with the Dictionary” in the light of dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias. How is Mullen’s poem a tribute to the making of definitions? How is it a protest of definitions? How does it treat language like a sensuous object? How does it compare reading to a form of erotic pleasure?