Learning from the Thirties

Course description:

The stock market crash of 1929 caused profound shifts in the perspective of most Americans, and those radical changes were reflected in the literature, art, film and popular culture they produced. Many issues that had been submerged in times of relative prosperity came to the fore during the Great Depression: powerful questions about American identity, race, class, gender were raised, generating a variety of answers from the radical to the conservative. This course will engage with primary documents of the era (literature, film, music, criticism) and examine them both in contemporaneous and current context. The first half of the course will focus on literature by Thirties writers (Caldwell, Cather, Dos Passos, Farrell, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hammett, Herbst, Hurston, Huxley, McCullers, Miller, Odets, O’Hara, Steinbeck, West, Wright, and others), Thirties film (documentaries, newsreels, major Hollywood productions, African American film), music (folk music, contemporary classical music, blues) and radio shows (serial shows, news shows). The second half of the course will examine the critical reception of Thirties writers in the current scholarly literature. The course will inquire into the canonization of Thirties literature, and the challenges to the traditional canon offered by the “rediscovery” of “lost” writers, including Djuna Barnes, Chester Himes, Tillie Olson, Meridel Le Sueur, Clifford Odets, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. Students will be required to choose one area of interest in which they will read deeply of the primary and secondary literature, in addition to the general overview offered by the course, and on which they will focus their research papers. Rather than adopting a single literary critical method, the course will undertake the project of examing how contemporary and current literary and critical methods understand and employ the cultural productions of the Thirties.

More info can be found here (you need to be a participant of the class to access the blog, though).

So far, seminar texts included:
– Don Congdon’s The Thirties: A Time to Remember (1962)
– Edward Dahlberg, Bottom Dogs
– William Faulkner’s Light in August
– Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep
– Nathaneal West’s Miss Lonelyhearts
– Meridel Le Sueur’s I was Marching and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s North to the Orient

Research Paper:

The paper, inspired by The Big Sleep by Chandler, will look at harboiled fiction, the film noir adaptation of these texts as well as more recent remakes.
Specifically, I will look at James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, the film noir adaptations of both by Garnett and Wilder, as well as remakes – Rafaelson’s Postman… with Jack Nicholson and a more loose adaptation of Double Indemnity by Kasdan (Body Heat), both from the 80s.

Cain, for both Postman… as well as Double Indemnity, was inspired by and more or less obviously worked in the real life case of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray from the 20s who, much like their novel and film counterparts, decided to kill Snyder’s husband. Their real life trial was the 1920s equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial of recent (their trial was the first to be broadcast live over radio). It also created controversy, since Snyder was only the second white woman to be sentenced to death by electrocution in New York State.
Even more controversy was created by the fact that one of the reporters (Tom Howard), witnessing the execution of Snyder, sneaked in a camera strapped to his ankle and snapped a picture of her while she was being electrocuted (it is illegal, in the US, to take a picture of a person while they are executed). To this day, it is the only picture of its kind in the United States and made the front page of the New York Daily News in 1929 (as well as catapulting Howard to prominence).

Snyder’s execution:

The paper will explore Cain’s hardboiled fiction and contrast it to its noir adaptations of the 1940s as well as the remakes of the 1980s, looking on how each decade influenced the films as well as looking at the definition of film noir as established by French critics/scholars in the 1940s.

Till then, a presentation on Film Noir from a previous seminar:

Presentation: Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep

Filmsite.org’s review on The Big Sleephere

Wikipedia entry



Presentation June 5th, 2007:

General intro and style, Big Sleep and Marlowe by Marlen, and the femme fatale by Carolin: Film Noir and The Big Sleep

General research:

Entry on film Noir on wikipedia.

Classic Noir Online – comprehensive site about film noir, actors, directors, films.

Film Noir Fundation – resource addressing the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir.

“Twisted Tales” – American Modern Art

Course description:
Until well into the 20th century, modern art was thought to be a strictly European thing: a development centered in Paris and of which any place in the U.S. would be the deepest and remotest province. In the 1950s this changed significantly when New York ‘stole the idea of modern art’ (Serge Gibaut) and became the new epicenter of its world – a shift which had profound effects on the relation of modern art and American culture.

The presentation focused on Michael Leja’s book “Reframing Abstract Expressionism”, looking at the beginnings of the movement – from Pollock over Newman to Rothko – and their roots in the subconscious and the “primitive”, as well as the constitution of an avant garde/artistic movement within the dealer-critic-system of its time.

Below is a collection of videos to go beyond the study of theoretical texts of the first American modern art movement with a focus on its artists.

Jackson Pollock:

Jackson Pollock in action:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/CrVE-WQBcYQ" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Now compare this to the movie version starring Ed Harris (already an appropriation):

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/2f4GntTvFv4" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

No comment: Action Painting Battle at NYC’s Tribeca Festival:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/choiRu5Uh3Q" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

And lastly, the appropriation of this cultural icon for an ad of Converse shoes!

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/9h9cQLQFSrk" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Mark Rothko:

Power of Art: Mark Rothko (part 1/6 – the rest also on YouTube):

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/nXZFLf9zHjs" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Rothko paintings (focus on color field painting):

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/8xrHHn5TR4E" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Research Paper:

As Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface to the 1891 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.”

My paper will focus on Andy Warhol, but not on his Pop Art period, but instead take a closer look at his darker side and fascination with death (and the morbid?) and the “Americanness” of his “Death and Disaster” series.

Famous examples are his Little Electric Chair, 1964:


from the Tate Britain: Warhol began using the image of the electric chair in 1963, the same year as the two final executions in New York State. Over the next decade, he repeatedly returned to the subject, reflecting the political controversy surrounding the death penalty in America in the 1960s. The chair, and its brutal reduction of life to nothingness, is given a typically deadpan presentation by Warhol. The image of an unoccupied electric chair in an empty execution chamber becomes a poignant metaphor for death.

Or his images of accidents such as White Burning Car, 1963:



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