ENGL758A - Literary Criticism and Theory; Writing Off the Self, Texts at Play

Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “Novels are concealed autobiography. I don’t mean you are telling the facts about yourself, but you are trying to find out what you really think or who you are.” Memoir has been all the rave at the close of the twentieth century and advent of the twenty-first.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram remain popular and feature play with life and self writing such as Twenty-Five Random Things About Me. Avatars. Aliases. Archives. Ethics. Anonymous. Follow ME on Twitter, Academia, Research Gate: “Writing the Self” or writings from, of, or off “the self” such as those that have been central to British and American literary traditions and the reciprocal relationships between self-fashioning and aesthetic media now permeate the social media we see all around us.  This course will examine self-fashioning strategies in a range of authors across a centuries-long temporal spectrum—excerpts used to set the stage for our critical inquiry might include readings from spiritual/moral autobiographies and autobiographic poems of Bunyan, Baxter, and Milton in England to ones by Rowlandson, Winthrop, Bradstreet, Wheatley, and Sewall in colonial New England; from Native American, Hawaiian, and VooDoo songs, chants, stories; from Franklin’s autobiography, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and letters of Abigail Adams in the newly realized United States; poetry and other writings by Whitman, Dickinson, Frances Harper, and others in the slaveholding and then post-slavery union; and “lyricized” writings from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century such as Marlon Riggs & Essex Hemphill’s Tongues Untied, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Patty Hearst’s Every Secret Thing, Jed Goldart’s Conscientious Objector application, Angela Davis: An Autobiography, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, from modern and postmodern “confessional” poetry to AIDS memoirs and coming-of-age stories to autobiographic storytelling in rock & roll by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Whatever prove to be our choices for our readings’ focus, we will not limit ourselves to “lyricized” expressions and prose narratives but will range widely across genres and media so that music, journalism, film, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter focus our critical inquiry of serious play in writing from the first person singular as we probe the following elements and more in self-representational writing (issues suggested by critical works on our syllabus): writing itself as constituting autobiographical identity; discursive contradictions (rather than unity) in representing identity; the name as a site of experimentation in states of being; gendered, racialized, sexualized, classed, and diseased/healthy connections and disconnections of word and body; limitations of critical/theoretical understandings of the terms “public” and “private”; collaborative writings and renegotiations of not only the first person singular but of the finally porous distinctions between and among literature, criticism, and theory; critically extensive reflection on what counts as “writing,” what counts as “literature”; critically extensive reflection on “archives,” what counts as an archive, on archives as remainders reconstituting collective memory. The archives of this course begin with our mutual readings, and course members are encouraged to contact me should they have a particular text they’d like to see on the syllabus. We will begin with Rankine’s Citizen.