Modern and Contemporary Literature

From turn of the century literary and oral traditions to contemporary globalization theory and digital storytelling, Modern and Contemporary studies at Mizzou English offers a wide range of approaches to literature and culture. Our faculty specialize in transatlantic modernist poetry; post-World War II American fiction and poetry; African, Caribbean, and other anglophone literatures; African American literature; Native literatures in the U.S.; film and media studies; and gender and sexuality studies. Critical studies in twentieth and twenty-first century literature are also enriched by the participation of prize-winning poets and fiction-writers in the creative writing Ph.D. program.

Course Offerings

Recent Upper-level Undergraduate Courses

Artificial Paradises

taught by Elisa Glick

In this course, we will investigate the decadent sensibility—a style of art and life (or life as art) that unapologetically privileges the artificial over the natural, excess over restraint, and the marginal over the normal. Was the scandalous decadent of the late nineteenth century an absinthe-drinking bohemian who celebrated debauchery and decline while retreating from the modern world?  Or do decadent artists and writers offer new ways of seeing and being that seek to challenge the sexual conformity and materialism of bourgeois society? Can the creation of hallucinatory dream worlds or artificial paradises change reality itself? Can art and beauty be political weapons against mainstream society?  These are some of the questions we will ponder as we investigate the aesthetics and politics of the decadent movement and its legacy in literature, art, fashion, and popular culture.  Topics will include the femme fatale, Sapphic decadence, queer eroticism and communities, the “New Woman,” Orientalism, commodity culture and consumerism, technology, drugs, dandyism, prostitution, sadomasochism, gender performance, degeneration, and monstrosity.  Readings and other course materials are likely to include theoretical/historical essays, decadent art, fashion, and design (Aubrey Beardsley; Alexander McQueen), and texts such as J.K. Huysmans’s Against Nature, Oscar Wilde’s Salome and The Picture of Dorian Gray, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  

Modern Literature:  Modernism and World War I

taught by Frances Dickey

When World War I began in 1914, Europe plunged into unimagined violence and suffering; when it emerged four years later, modernity was here to stay. This course examines the literature of the "Great War" from the avant-garde movements of the immediate prewar period, through soldiers' war poems and modernist war elegies, to the aftermath when writers attempted to find new sources of meaning in a transformed world.   Along the way this course surveys major works of Anglo-American modernism. Authors to be studied include W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon (and other war poets), Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms).

Major Authors:  T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf

taught by Frances Dickey

The close friendship between American poet T. S. Eliot and English novelist Virginia Woolf was both natural and improbable; natural because both were highly creative, experimental, sensitive writers living in London in the early twentieth century; improbable because of their very different views of life (Eliot, a cultural outsider, became increasingly conservative, in contrast to the aristocratic Woolf, who was an atheist and feminist).  This course examines their major works and their relationship as revealed in letters, essays, diary entries, and literary references.   Reading will include Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and selected short stories and essays; most of Eliot's poetry (he was not a prolific poet), his experimental drama Sweeney Agonistes, and some of his essays.  Coursework includes papers, presentations, tests, and class discussion; expect a challenge and a lifelong appreciation of two of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Modern Literature:  The Harlem Renaissance

taught by Christopher Okonkwo

This course focuses on the 1920s “New Negro” movement or Harlem Renaissance, a moment of vibrant cultural and intellectual activity by African American and African Diaspora reformers, poets, novelists, playwrights, actors, painters, and musicians. The Harlem Renaissance, alongside the black experience that in part informed it, is crucial to our fullest understanding of not just (American) modernity per se, but also European and Anglo-American modernism. We will stress the works of some of the period’s most prominent thinkers and artists: W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, George Schuyler, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larsen, and Jean Toomer. Helping frame our exploration of the focal novels, however, are a number of critical expositions (albeit not in this order): one, Alain Locke’s, which announces and celebrates the presence of the “New Negro”; two, by Jesse Matz, who introduces us to the modern novel; three, Nathan Irvin Huggins’s, which judges the movement a “failure”; and four, a rebuttal by Houston A. Baker, Jr., who rejects Huggins’s conclusion and insists on the movement’s distinct modernness as well as its successes.

No matter one’s views on the era, or how literary historians parse its contexts, debates, interracial exchanges, its accomplishments, legacy, and heyday—1920-1929, 1920-1935, or 1925-1960—what remains true is that the Harlem Renaissance, the first Black Arts movement, produced some of the most well-known black intellectual and creative figures to-date. Our goal, ultimately, is to gain a complex appreciation of this movement and its place, especially relative to the Jazz Age.

Modern Literature:  The African Coming-of-Age Novel

taught by Christopher Okonkwo

If dated from the slave autobiographies, one could argue that life-writing—factual, mediated, and/or fictional—has had a centuries’ old history in Black Atlantic literary imagination. In this capstone, however, our focus is on representative, post-World War II coming-of-age narratives by continental African authors. As some scholars have suggested, the African bildungsroman, when juxtaposed against its German, French, and English antecedents and contemporaries, instantiates the problematic of generic conformity and deviance. A subunit of modern and postcolonial African literature, the African bildungsroman sometimes comports with the “classical” European model, especially the latter’s privileging of personal reading and mentorship. In other cases, though, it “writes back” to and unravels the problems raised by the European model’s subordination of community in favour of both youth and individualism/individual growth. This course aims to examine the above issues toward close readings of select African works in their own right.

Postcolonial Literature

taught by Sheri-Marie Harrison

Postcolonial literature is literature produced by formerly colonized nations, including India, Pakistan, the West Indies, various countries in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and others. This literature and theory is primarily is concerned with how colonial subjects are produced in and by Empire. This course will explore the how postcolonial literature “writes back” to Empire, by engaging with themes like identity, belonging, exile, place, language, sovereignty, and hybridity. To this end we read a number of the most influential theorists of postcolonialism as well as some of the novels that have been of particular importance to debates and discussions in the field. Our goal will include: learning how to discuss, and analyze postcolonial texts; learning how race, class, gender, history, and identity are presented and problematized in the literary texts; improving our understanding of the relationship between colonial powers and nations that once were colonized; and learning how to critically evaluate and appropriate key concepts and theories in postcolonial studies when analyzing a range of colonial and postcolonial literary texts.

Buddhism and Contemporary American Poetry

taught by Ray Ronci

The years immediately following WW II left, for many people, both an artistic and a spiritual void in American culture. Many artists, musicians and writers looked to the East for some kind of spiritual and aesthetic inspiration and discovered that Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, provided them with both. We'll begin the semester with the study of some core Buddhist texts: The Heart Sutra: Seng-ts'-an's Trust in Mind; Hui Neng's Platform Sutra; Huang Po's Transmission of Mind; Excerpts from Ta Hui's Swampland Flowers; Excerpts from The Lin Chi Lu -- teachings of Master Rinzai; Chinul's On Cultivating Mind; So Sahn's The Mirror of Zen; Bankei's Ryumon-ji Sermons.

Following the core teachings of Zen, we'll examine the poetry of Layman Pang, Muso Soseki, Ikkyu Sojun, Daigu Ryokan, Hakuin Ekaku and others. The basic teachings of Zen coupled with the poetry of Zen practitioners will provide us with the foundation of knowledge necessary to consider Buddhism's impact on Contemporary American Poetry. Among the American poets to be studied are: Diane Di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Norman Fischer, Sam Hamill, Jane Hirschfield, Robert Kelly, Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, Harryette Mullen, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Chase Twichell, Anne Waldman, Tess Gallagher, Andrew Schelling, and so on.

Strictly speaking, Buddhism is not a religion because the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, also known as Shakyamuni Buddha, was neither a god nor a prophet. The teachings of the Buddha amount to this: Sit in meditation and see for yourself. From this perspective an aesthetic evolved: Right here, right now, what is this very moment? What does it mean when people employ the phrase, Zen and The Art Of... What makes something Zen? What is Zen poetry? These are questions we will examine during the semester.

Major Authors: Don DeLillo and Susan Choi

taught by Abigail Manzella

Don DeLillo has long been considered one of the most esteemed living U.S. writers, and Susan Choi has gained attention as an important writer of the 21st century, but why read their work next to each other when their births are separated by over thirty years? Beyond the fact that both are living authors in New York City, they ask similar questions about what it means to live within the U.S. during the last hundred years.  Both engage with and avoid their own ethnic backgrounds of Italian-ness and Korean/Russian Jewishness respectively, both write about political history and its mediated presentation such as in the cases of the JFK assassination and the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and both critique academia.  At the same time, their aesthetics show us the power of seemingly simple presentation choices such as point of view and organizing time. We will investigate DeLillo and Choi’s observations on the page as well as read others’ commentaries on them in the form of academic criticism and reviews. Possible texts include Choi’s The Foreign Student, American Woman, Person of Interest as well as DeLillo’s Mao II, White Noise, and Falling Man. Short stories, essays, and films by the authors will also be considered.

Graphic Narrative

taught by Andy Hoberek

This class serves as a survey of contemporary graphic narrative.  It begins with works from the period in the mid-1980s when the so-called graphic novel broke off from its cousin the comic book and started to achieve literary and artistic respectability, and ends with very recent works. We look at graphic narratives from a range of genres, from superhero stories to nonfiction memoirs.

Climate Change Fiction

taught by Karen Piper

Want to know how the world will end?  Read authors who predict how climate change will shape the future.  With writing styles ranging from dark humor to lament, authors speculate about how planetary changes might affect human and natural relationships.  Will mass migrations occur?  Will communities turn on each other?  Will feelings of loss and sorrow emerge, or panic, or simply continuing denial?  Some of the authors we will read in this course explore this topic through speculative fiction, the narrative equivalent of computer modeling.  By imagining what might happen, based upon the current science, they create a harrowing image of the future.  Other authors simply describe what is already happening:  flooding islands, disappearing reefs, changing migration patterns, and so on.  To understand how climate change works, we will ground ourselves in the basics with selections from The Global Warning Reader.  We will read Requiem for a Species to examine the psychological impacts of climate change.  Finally, we will watch “The Island President,” about the sinking Maldives.  This course will give you a sense of how climate change is affecting how we think and feel about the future, and how it is impacting the structure of stories.

Major Authors: Jay-Z and Kanye West

taught by Andy Hoberek

This course looks at the careers and work of Jay-Z and Kanye West from three perspectives: (1) Where do they fit within, and how do they influence, the history of hip-hop music? (2) How is what they do similar to and different from what poets do?, and (3) How does their rise to both celebrity and corporate power relate to (and possibly change) what we understand as the American dream?

Recent Graduate Seminars

Global Indigenous Media

taught by Joanna Hearne

This course offers a historical overview and critical exploration of films and videos by indigenous directors, producers, writers, and actors. Beginning with early silent films and balancing Indigenous film history, regional case studies, and considerations of genres or modes such as animation and experimentalism, we will discuss indigenous filmmaking both as a distinct social practice and in relation to other minority cinemas and Hollywood. Topics for discussion will include (among others) the politics of racial representations in Westerns and ethnographic documentaries; visual sovereignty; indigenous experimentalism; cinema and the idea of tradition; spectatorship and identity; gender, race and masquerade in cinematic performance and casting; cinema and social justice including political reform, land claims and language preservation; the ethics of documentary film production; and community video and television. 


taught by Elisa Glick

In the last year of his life, Andy Warhol created a series of self-portraits that use the jigsaw-like pattern of army camouflage to abstract and disguise his own image, offering an ironic and haunting comment on his reputation as an enigmatic disappearing act.  This enduring image of Warhol as an icon of nothingness—his puzzling “blankness” or machine-like impersonality—will serve as our point of departure this semester.  Are Warhol’s strategies of self-effacement an extended meditation on the complexities of self-revelation?  A critique of humanist notions of identity?  We will take up such questions by investigating a wide range of the artist’s multimedia work, including writings, films, photographs, performance art, collections, sculpture, commercial art, and time capsules.  Focusing on his key motifs of profit, sex, death and fame, this seminar will contextualize Warhol’s aesthetic choices and social commitments within the larger preoccupations and problems of (post)modern cultural production.  For example, how can the avant-garde integrate art and everyday life in the standardized world of mass culture?  Is the autonomy of art necessary to guarantee its utopian potential?   Topics will include:  the cultural milieu of the Factory, nostalgia, celebrity, mechanical reproduction, art and commodity culture, dandyism, authenticity, beauty, pleasure, camp and queer aesthetics, temporality, boredom, and repetition.

Genres in Modernist Poetry

taught by Frances Dickey

Many critics have maintained that poetic genre disappears with the advent of modernism, persisting only as violated conventions or as parody.  This seminar will test that thesis by examining a range of modernist poems to see whether and how they deploy generic traits and conventions.  The course will investigate the continuity of Victorian and twentieth-century poetry in various subgenres, such as dramatic monologue, ekphrasis, elegy, pastoral, and epic; we may look at the reception of poetic forms and their generic content (such as epigram, sestina, and sonnet); we will also examine the influence of other art forms (including painting, the novel, and avant-garde drama) on the development of the concept of genre in modernist poetry.  Poets to be discussed may include Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Moore, Bishop, and Lowell.

The Future and Contemporary American Fiction

taught by Samuel Cohen

In this seminar we will read twenty-first-century American novels that in one way or another are concerned with the future, including works by Edwidge Danticat, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Ben Lerner, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Lydia Millet, Ed Park, Nathaniel Rich, Dana Spiotta, and Colson Whitehead. We will read these novels alongside a variety of secondary materials that will help us think about how these writers and their times see the future—how it is imagined, represented, worried about, anticipated. We will also read a range of things that will help us think about the particular challenges and opportunities of writing about contemporary literature and culture more generally. Assignments will include daily questions, three presentations, a book review, and a conference-length paper.

Race and Space in US Women’s Literature

taught by Abigail Manzella

Toni Morrison states that a “world-in-which-race-does-not-matter” is home.  How then do we find a sense of home and an overall sense of place in a world in which race and ethnicity do matter?  Does gender matter in the same way? Do class, national origin, and the moment in history also alter our understanding of space and place in narrative?  How does the space we live in and move through affect not only the individual in space, but the people in the spaces around us, our communities?    In this course students will read the complex literary heritage of women who live(d) in this country and how they experience and create U.S. cultural space in the 20th and 21st centuries.  By analyzing the aesthetic representations of space in these texts and in theoretical readings about them, students will investigate how our locations affect us, whether it be the private or the public, the workplace or the home, or major internal migrations or everyday movements.  Possible novels include Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, Louise Erdirch’s Tracks, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love.

New Black Iconoclasm

taught by Sheri-Marie Harrison

Kenneth Warren’s provocative claim that “the collective enterprise we know as African American literature or black literature is of rather recent vintage,” serves as a point of departure for this seminar’s inquiry into contemporary African diaspora studies (What Was African American Literature 1). What (if anything) does Warren’s assertion of the past-ness of African American Literature offer us for understanding African Diasporic texts? What (if any) are the social, political, and economic impetuses and imperatives of the current moment of race-based literary studies? In this seminar we will examine authors and texts that are puzzling in their sometimes-irreverent rejection of the beliefs, institutions, and practices normalized in African diasporic discourses. Paying close attention to both the formal structures and the socio-historical, cultural, political, and intellectual backdrops of African diasporic literary studies, we will work towards a comprehensive understanding of the contemporary moment in African diasporic discourses. 

Related Areas of Study:

Film Studies, Digital Storytelling, and Visual Studies

African Diaspora Studies

Native American Studies

Women’s and Gender Studies in English