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2011/12 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

ENGL3377 Against the Great American Novel: Panoramic US Narratives, 1900-present

20 creditsClass Size: 20


Module manager: Dr Andrew Warnes

Taught: Semester 1 (Sep to Jan) View Timetable

Year running 2011/12

This module is not approved as an Elective

Module summary

The Great American Novel, at least since Senator John James Ingalls tried but failed to talk William Dean Howells into writing one, has been something of a fantasy, a cause célèbre more often called for than delivered. Curiously, however, many of those modern writers who have shared Howells' unease with the term went on, like him, to produce narratives that nonetheless stress the very features, from a diverse cast of characters to episodes that place them all onto the same footing, which the Great American Novel was always intended to affirm.Looked at one way, indeed, it can seem as if many US writers produced these narratives in spite of themselves - as if the Great American Novel dared not speak its name. In the first few weeks of Against the Great American Novel, we will wrestle with this apparent paradox.In the opening lecture I will suggest an explanation for it: that these writers felt wary about the Great American Novel, principally, because it seemed to require them to treat equality and diversity as existing, accomplished social facts. For these writers, and even for the most patriotic among them, a less idealised view of US society and a more active attitude toward literary creation seemed preferable. The lessons of European literature proved hard to ignore. For Bleak House and Crime and Punishment among other European social novels had showed them an alternative literary approach: one in which narrative itself, by plot devices and flagrant coincidences, snatches a vision of human equality from the jaws of an unequal and alienating society.Attracted to this more contentious model of literary production, the American writers we will encounter on this module duly approach the diversity of their stories, not as a realist reflection of established social facts, but as the imaginative result of their own narrative practices. Some of them, in developing this global narrative view, have cultivated what certain critics call a synoptic form, focusing, rather like Jimmy McGovern’s recent BBC series The Street, or even like Cheers, on a single location that diverse American characters can then frequent or encounter. Others, meanwhile, have learnt from Dickens, and have cultivated modern equivalents for those devices - his mutual friends and labyrinthine lawsuits - that enabled him to bring all of London into narrative view. Even the road trip, approached this way, can appear a means by which Kerouac, far from abandoning US society, could produce a fuller and more complete novelistic vision of it.This and other panoramic US narratives, surveyed over the course of the module, will ensure that, by the time we turn to Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), several new narrative questions will have grown clear. I would like us to ask: to what extent is Carver's austere story collection offering us a thwarted panorams - a vision in which the problem of communication that each of his individual characters faces merely parallels the lack of Dickensian coincidence in the plot? These and other questions will be raised in the course of a model that will also illuminate some of the most important narratives of twentieth-century US writing.


To acquire greater knowledge of the American literary tradition post-1900; of the structure and ethic imperatives of the novel; of the relationship between democratic ideals and the American novel in particular.

Learning outcomes
The transferable skills students will acquire as a result of this module include written and oral communication skills; independent research skills; sensitivity to and empathy with others; consideration of political commitment to notions of democratic equality and inclusivity.

Skills outcomes
- Skills for effective communication, oral and written.
- Capacity to analyse and critically examine diverse forms of discourse.
- Ability to acquire quantities of complex information of diverse kinds in a structured and systematic way.
- Capacity for independent thought and judgement.
- Critical reasoning.
- Research skills, including information retrieval skills, the organisation of material, and the evaluation of its importance.
- IT skills.
- Time management and organisational skills.
- Independent learning.


Four lectures and week by week seminars focus on Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919); William Faulkner, Wild Palms (or If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, 1939); Richard Wright, Native Son (1940); Gwendolyn Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (1945); Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957); Raymond Carver, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976; or Collected Stories (2009)); Gloria Naylor, Mama Day (1988).

Teaching methods

Due to COVID-19, teaching and assessment activities are being kept under review - see module enrolment pages for information

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours185.00
Total Contact hours15.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)200.00

Private study

- Teaching will be through weekly seminars (10 x 1 hour) plus up to 5 additional hours (content to be determined by the module tutor).
- The 5 additional hours may include lectures, plenary sessions, film showings, or the return of unassessed/assessed essays.

Private Study: Reading, seminar preparation and essay writing.

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

- Contribution to seminars
- 1st assessed essay (submitted in Week 7 of the semester).

Methods of assessment

Due to COVID-19, teaching and assessment activities are being kept under review - see module enrolment pages for information

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Essay2,250 words50.00
Essay2,250 words50.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

Normally resits will be assessed by the same methodology as the first attempt, unless otherwise stated

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 14/03/2012


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