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The American Century and Beyond US Literature and Culture since 1900


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Dr Anna Hartnell
  • Assessment: a 1000-word coursework assignment (10%) and two 2500-word essays (45% each)

Module description

In this module we survey one of the most exciting literary and cinematic landscapes to emerge in what many have termed 'the American century'. We begin by mapping some of the crucial coordinates of American literature and culture in the first part of the twentieth century, taking in the legacy of the nineteenth century - including the spectre of slavery and the cultural division between North and South - the 'Jazz Age', the Great Depression, the emergence of cinema, literary naturalism and modernism. We then move on to explore the hugely fertile post-1945 period, which saw the mass exportation of US economic, political and cultural influence. Postwar America is examined via a series of contrasts between rebellion and conformity, artistic censorship and experimentation, that are the consequence of the domestic front of the Cold War, the 1960s and 70s counter-cultures, the war in Vietnam, the rise of consumer culture and postmodern art.

A consideration of identity politics in the 1990s provides an opportunity to reflect on understandings of what it means to be American at the threshold of the twenty-first century. Do we still live in an American-centred world? The concluding part of the module offers a window onto post-9/11 America and probes the significance of US literature and culture in a world in which US power is arguably on the wane.

Indicative syllabus


  • Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)
  • John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (1925)
  • Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (1991)
  • Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife (1998)
  • William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)
  • Martha Gellhorn, The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936)
  • Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish (1961)
  • Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior:  Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1975)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
  • Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995)
  • Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963).
  • Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
  • Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (2004)
  • Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (2013)
  • Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)


  • Apocalypse Now, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (1979)
  • Birth of a Nation, dir. D.W. Griffith (1915)
  • The Manchurian Candidate, dir. John Frankenheimer (1962)
  • The Dark Knight, dir. Christopher Nolan (2008)

Learning objectives

By the end of this module you will:

  • be familiar with a range of key US literary and cinematic texts from 1900 to the present
  • understand aesthetic contexts relevant to the development of US literature and culture during this period
  • understand key historical and social contexts relevant to the development of US literature and culture during this period
  • be able to engage in debates about the status of US literature and culture, in the context of theories of US supremacy and US decline.