American Literature in the World (Freshman Seminar)

English 033/ Am Studies 033
American Literature in the World
Prof. Wai Chee Dimock
Spring 2015

American Literature as a gateway to the world, with texts from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, read together as clusters, ranging from Paris as a “moveable feast,” to more literal accounts of food and hunger, to still grimmer tales of secular and religious violence.


Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Monique Truong. The Book of Salt
Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats
Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
Olaudah Equiano, Interesting Narrative
Dave Eggers, What is the What
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Agha Shahid Ali, The Half-Inch Himalayas
Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
Junot Diaz, Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


1/13     Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
1/15     Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
1/20    Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
1/22    Stein, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
1/27    Monique Truong, The Book of Salt
1/29    Monique Truong, The Book of Salt

2/3   Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
2/5   Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
2/10    Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats
2/12    Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats


2/17  Olaudah Equinao, Interesting Narrative
2/19  Olaudah Equiano, Interesting Narrative
2/24   Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers, What is the What
2/26   Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers, What is the What
3/3    Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers, What is the What
3/5    Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers, What is the What
3/24    Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
3/26       Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
3/31       Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
4/7    Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
4/9     Agha Shahid Ali, The Half-Inch Himalayas

4/14    Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
4/16    Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
4/21     Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
4/23     Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

* Class presentation, 5-10 minutes
* Short essay, 5 pp
(Outline due: Feb 5;  Paper due: Feb 12)
* Long essay, 10-15 pp
(Outline due:  April 7.   Paper due: April 23)

* Students taking the seminar to fulfill a pre-1900 requirement must write the long essay      on pre-1900 authors. Please work out the details with Prof. Dimock

Prompts for first paper:

You are asked to write a paper exploring the relations either between two geographical locations or between two particularly salient concepts.   It might be helpful to use more than one text to address these phenomena:

— America as seen from Paris
— Germany as seen from Paris
— Vietnam as seen from Paris
— “Geniuses” and “wives,” as seen by Gertrude Stein, and by others
— Inside and outside of human beings, and of social environments
— Food and hunger


Prompts for long paper:

Once again, I’d encourage you to design your own paper topics, but here are some suggestions in case you’re stuck:

—  Dreamers: Olaudah Equiano and Valentino Achak Deng both report having recurring dreams that are somehow predictive of the future.    What is the status of these dreams within the overall realistic fabric of these narratives?   Are they superstitions?   How do they intersect with more orthodox religious faiths?   Do they suggest psychological truths about these characters?

—  Food and Hunger in Cross-cultural Contexts: from Binh’s lyrical description of food in The Book of Salt, to the less than lyrical description of the beef industry in My Year of Meats, food seems to be one of the key players in the globalization of everyday life, even as hunger emerges as another aspect of the same micro-register of globalization.   Comment on these interlocking developments.

—  Permutations of the human and nonhuman: the cattle in What is the What, the ants in the Poisonwood Bible, the mongoose in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao all seem to point to continually renegotiated boundaries between human and nonhuman species.   Discuss this phenomenon using at least two texts.

—  Christianity and Islam as World Religions: discuss Equiano, Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers, and Barbara Kingsolver in this context.

—  Human rights and economic rationality: is there a possible tension between these two?   You might want to think about Junot Diaz as well as Equiano in addressing this question.

—  Shadows of other continents: Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters live constantly under this spell, and the “lost boys” do as well.    Discuss these lingering shadows in any of of the texts we read this semester, from Hemingway on.

—  Generational sagas: these are most conspicuously present in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but perhaps also in other texts.   You might want to pair Junot Diaz with one other author in exploring this question.

One Response to American Literature in the World (Freshman Seminar)

  1. Erin Krebs says:

    Hunger as a metaphysical presence in American / Parisian literature
    literal references to the importance of cuisine in French culture: significance of the personal chef (The Book of Salt) and the cafe culture
    food and the preparation of food are figuratively very significant
    Hemingway – tenacity as a writer, evolution of the meaning of emptiness, the distance in his relationship with his wife
    Binh’s power despite his status as colonial Vietnamese house chef, his connection to his roots/mother
    the shared element of craftsmanship- Hemingway as writer/ Binh as culinary artist
    Hunger in a moveable feast
    hunger as Hemingway’s voracity for more
    Chapter 8 – Hunger as “A Moveable Feast”
    Shift from Chapter 1- Writing story leaves him initially with a good feeling of emptiness that he fulfills with the oyster scene
    The entirety of chapter 8
    use of second person as something that disassociates
    “Hunger is healthy and the pictures do look better when you are hungry. Eating is wonderful too and do you know where you are going to eat right now?” – Discuss how hunger can improve his writing
    “ Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it.”- self-denial and focus as tactics for writer

    Hungering for gambling
    Shift in the way that he feels about emptiness – “By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.”
    Hunger as distance in the relationship
    Michaud’s family scene- the concept of fulfilling – notably set in a restaurant
    “Standing there I wondered how much of what we had felt on the bridge was just hunger. I asked my wife and she said, ‘I don’t know, Tatie. There are so many sorts of hunger. In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger.” – Acknowledgement of an emptiness in their relationship
    Ever-present emptiness: “It was a wonderful meal at Michaud’s after we got in; but when we had finished and there was no question of hunger any more, the feeling that had been like hunger when we were on the bridge was still there when we caught the bus home. It was there when we came in the room and after we had gone to bed and made love in the dark, it was there.” –
    Binh’s connection to food
    Connection to his mother
    Sense of connection to Vietnam
    Habituality of “threading silver”
    Food as truth
    “After all, the tongue is an organ of truth.” (178)
    Salt’s omnipresence
    “Before I could take in my mother’s milk, I tasted the salt on her nipple.” (217)
    Preparation as Reclamation of Power
    He has complete power as to what enters the bodies of those who eat his food.
    “Madame, please do not forget that every morsel that slides down your dewy white throat has first rested in my two hands, coddled in the warmth of my ten fingers.” (154)
    Food as equalizer; challenger to colonial structure
    Craft as Identity – Hemingway as author and Binh as Chef
    Hemingway is owned by his text
    Binh and Hemingway’s relationships defined by artistic milieu
    “A cook who has no desire to eat is a lost soul. Worse, he is a questionable cook.”
    “Thinness” as a reflection of Binh’s unhappiness and as Hemingway’s sense of control over artistry
    “We practice a craft whose value increases tenfold once its yield is shared and consumed.” – Their values are predicated on dissemination, evaluation and appreciation.

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