All aspects of American life after World War II were affected to a greater or lesser extent by the Cold War political climate during the years after the war. What might be surprising to many, however, is that literature and culture were among the aspects of American life that were most affected by the Cold War. This fact should not really be surprising, though. A cold war is a cultural war, and the principal American goal in the Cold War was to convince the rest of the world that the American way of life was superior to the Soviet way of life. Meanwhile, one of the most important strategies in this effort was a multi-pronged attempt to demonstrate that the art and literature of the West (and especially of the United States) was more complex and sophisticated than the art and literature of the Soviet Union.

The problem with this effort, of course, was that the United States had never given much priority to art and literature prior to the Cold War, preferring to think of itself as a practical, can-do nation that could solve material problems (and defeat enemies) with science, engineering, hard work, and ingenuity. Art and literature, on the other hand, were typically treated as marginal luxuries in American society. The increased emphasis on art and literature in the United States that came with the Cold War led, not only to an increase in literary and artistic production (often aided with subsidies from the U.S. government), but also to an increased emphasis on education in the arts and humanities. This emphasis, among other things, led to precipitous increases in enrollments in these areas in American universities and triggered a severe understaffing in humanities faculties across the U.S. It takes many years to train a new professor, so it was not a simple matter of ramping up hiring. American universities had to find new and more efficient stop-gap ways to teach things such as literature while new professors were being trained, so that classes could be larger and many of them could be taught by graduate students who were not yet fully qualified to be professors.

The solution to this situation came with the rise of the so-called New Criticism, an innovative formalist style of criticism that focused on the literary properties of texts and disavowed all interest in the relationship between the text and the historical world outside of literature. The dominance of the New Criticism in American universities made it possible to study literature with relatively little knowledge in hand, making literature easier to teach, but ultimately doing great damage to American education as a whole—educational projects designed to evade a need for knowledge are obviously problematic. But the techniques of the New Criticism, which put so much value on literary complexity, had other consequences as well, such as leading to the canonization of a formerly marginal modernism as the epitome of literary high culture.

 The enshrinement of modernism at the center of the Western canon was part of a general revision in the canon that had begun even before the Cold War but was greatly accelerated as a result of the new postwar geopolitical situation. A crucial figure here is F. O. Matthiessen (1902–1950), whose idiosyncratic criticism during the 1930s and 1940s made it impossible to label him easily as a participant in any particular movement, but whose work was widely appropriated in the 1950s by an American literary establishment that marched inexorably toward conformity. Matthiessen paradoxically combined New-Critical aesthetics with seemingly leftist politics much in the spirit of his own calls for the integration of “fact and theory” or for American intellectuals to get more firmly in touch with the material realities of everyday life in America. His readings of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville led to a complete reformulation of the canon of antebellum American literature that survived the 1950s and is still virtually intact today, after years of supposedly radical “canon busting.” Indeed, one of the ironies in the history of modern American literary criticism is that Matthiessen offered these five writers, who have been so central to the American canon ever since, in an anticanonical spirit. In particular, he consistently depicts his major American authors as oppositional figures who provide challenges to the status quo of a kind that he himself sees as crucial to democracy. Yet these same figures were appropriated for placement in the Cold War American canon, supplemented with modernist figures such as T.S, Eliot, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. Meanwhile, modernists such as the Irish writers James Joyce and W. B. Yeats and he English writers Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster suddenly occupied central positions in the Western canon as a whole.

This canon was then put forth as evidence of the superiority of the Western bloc to the Soviet bloc, much in the way that the British had justified their imperial expansion in the late nineteenth century by proclamations of British cultural superiority (with Shakespeare providing the leading examples). This new canon, meanwhile, encouraged new writers to pursue many of the same formal strategies as those employed by the modernists, which would eventually play a key role in the rise of postmodernism, which became especially visible by the 1970s. In the long 1950s, though, amid these declarations of American literary achievement, American writers were finding it difficult to find a true voice that could work in harmony with the new canon (and the New Criticism). The leading-selling author of the long 1950s, for example, was Mickey Spillane (1918–2006), whose detective novels featured a sadistic, misogynistic protagonist and whose work was almost entirely lacking in the kinds of literary flourishes valued by the New Critics. On the other hand, Jim Thompson (1906–1977), the crime fiction writer of the 1950s who would ultimately draw the most critical respect, labored in obscurity through that decade, novels such as The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Savage Night (1953) being so dark and so weird that they only came to be appreciated many years later.

Meanwhile, surviving modernists—such as Faulkner and Hemingway—produced little of genuine merit in the 1950s, while the novel of the 1950s that would ultimately attain the most critical respect of all was Vladimir Nabokov’s (1899–1977) Lolita (1955), written more in the stylistic spirit of the great European modernists. Unfortunately, it also dealt with sexual subject matter that made it highly problematic in the fastidious fifties (and that would again raise questions in the #MeToo era). In addition, Lolita was written by a Russian émigré who fled back to Europe at the first economic opportunity, escaping what he clearly saw as the vulgarity of America, hardly making him an ideal candidate for the demonstration of American cultural superiority. Of course, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert is a notoriously unreliable narrator, so it is difficult to tell for certain what actually happens in the story related in that text—which is one of the things that makes it so modernist. Meanwhile, the other great modernist American novel of the 1950s, Ralph Ellison’s (1913–1994) Invisible Man (1952), is suitably anticommunist but is also a scathing indictment of American racism; it thus had a difficult time receiving attention in the Cold War climate of the long 1950s, given that it hardly works as a demonstration of the superiority of American democracy.

Even J. D. Salinger’s (1919–2010) The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which became such a favorite of young Americans (especially young American males) in the 1950s, is highly cynical about the prospects of the American dream. In particular, this novel is a coming-of-age story that clearly depicts the attainment of maturity as a loss of innocence. The book takes place during one crucial weekend in the life of Holden Caulfield, its 16-year-old narrator and protagonist. Holden comes from a wealthy white Christian family and is thus very centrally placed in American society. But that centrality itself is a problem, threatening to drag him into the heart of a commodified conformist society he regards as utterly “phony.”

Other respected American novels of the years after World War II were even darker in their vision of America. For example, in one of the first important postwar novels, Norman Mailer’s (1923–2007) The Naked and the Dead (1948), the American forces succeed in their siege of the Japanese-held Pacific island of Anopopei, but the protagonist, Lt. Hearn, is killed in the process. Meanwhile, the Americans win with a savagery that makes it clear that this is no case of good guys defeating bad guys—and that does not bode well for a postwar world dominated by American military power. In the final chapter, the triumphant American forces scour the island, hunting down and killing virtually defenseless Japanese stragglers like troublesome insects. After months of hard battle, we are told, “the mopping up was comparatively pleasant, almost exciting. The killing lost all dimension, bothered the men far less than discovering some ants in their bedding” (718).

It was not clear at the time, but, in retrospect, some of the most important novels of the 1950s were those—such as William S. Burroughs’ (1914–1997) Naked Lunch (1959)and William Gaddis’s (1922–1998) The Recognitions (1955)—that could ultimately be identified as forerunners of the postmodern fiction that evolved through the 1960s and emerged fully formed in the 1970s. The Beats, in general, exercised considerable influence on the evolution of postmodernism and especially on such individual writers as Thomas Pynchon (1937– ), whose The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) is one of the early classics of evolving American postmodernism, and whose Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) can be taken as an announcement of the arrival of full-blown postmodernism (and still stands as perhaps the most important American postmodern novel). Later Pynchon novels, such as Mason & Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006) are also monumental achievements of postmodern fiction, though they have yet to achieve the widespread acclaim of Gravity’s Rainbow, which they join to form a sort of trilogy of epic historical novels that address the entire modern history of America. Meanwhile, The Crying of Lot 49 is joined by Vineland (1990) and Inherent Vice (2009) to form a sort of trilogy of novels that trace the more localized history of the 1960s counterculture.

Though Faulkner, Hemingway, and John Steinbeck would win Nobel Prizes in Literature between 1949 and 1962 mostly for work written before 1945, the first American author to win a Nobel for work done after World War II was the Canadian-born Saul Bellow (1915–2005), who won the Nobel in 1976, having established his reputation in the 1950s with novels such as The Adventures of Augie March (1953), winner of the National Book Award. At one point, three straight Bellow novels—Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975)—won the National Book Award, making him one of the most awarded authors of his generation. Bellow was also a key member of a group of Jewish American writers who were at the forefront of American literature, often focusing their writing on the Jewish American experience. This has been particularly true of the prolific Philip Roth (1933–2018), who also won a number of prestigious awards for novels written in a variety of veins and genres, from the sex comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), to the dystopian alternative history of The Plot Against America (2004), to a series of nine novels about novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who serves as a sort of stand-in for Roth himself. The Jewish American novelist Joseph Heller (1923–1999), especially with his World War II novel Catch-22 (1961), made important contributions to an absurdist strain that became important in American literature during this period.

This absurdist vein also included the master satirist Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007), who began his career with the dystopian novel Player Piano (1952) and who also drew significant attention for the science fiction novels The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Cat’s Cradle (1963). He then became a major figure with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a World War II novel with science fiction elements that still remains his most respected work. Novels such as Breakfast of Champions (1971), Slapstick (1976), Jailbird (1979), Galápagos (1985), and Hocus Pocus (1990) were written in a satirical mode that comments on American society in darkly comic ways. He topped off his career as a novelist with the autobiographical Timequake (1997).

Meanwhile, in a more conventional realist mode, John Updike (1932–2009), a writer often compared with Roth, produced a number of novels that provided a running commentary on American society over several decades. Central to his large body of work is the series of novels—Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990)—which track the life of a single protagonist over a period of thirty years, at the same time tracking changes in American society over the same period.

African American writers such as Ellison and Richard Wright (1908–1960)—author of the leftist classic Native Son (1940)—gained renewed attention thanks to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, while this movement also helped to inspire a number of new writers of color to produce important work that has greatly enriched American literature since that time. One writer who deserves special mention in this regard is the gay African American writer James Baldwin (1924–1987), a writer who lived most of his adult life in Paris in order to escape bigotry in America. He still spent considerable time in the U.S., though, participating in and becoming a leading intellectual and literary voice of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. His work and activism also provided inspiration to the Gay Rights Movement during its early decades. Still, Baldwin’s incisive critiques of American racism and homophobia were so radical that he is only now beginning to receive his full due as a writer. Recent renewed attention to his work no doubt owes something to the growing acceptance of gay perspectives in American culture, as well as to renewed awareness of the problem of racism in America thanks to movements such as Black Lives Matter. Baldwin has also gained wider attention thanks to the recent release of the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro (2016), based on an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin that provides a history of American racism through the optic of the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. More recently, Barry Jenkins’ 2018 film adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) was a critical success. Other key novels by Baldwin include the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and Just Above My Head (1979). His essays and short stories are also important, as in the extremely influential collection of essays The Fire Next Time (1963).

The Women’s Movement of the 1960s also had a major impact on American literature, both by encouraging a re-examination of the works of women writers of the past and by inspiring a new generation of American women writers. On the other hand, the influence went both ways, as when Mary McCarthy (1912–1989), with her 1963 novel The Group,became an inspiration for the Women’s Movement, despite her own reluctance to be identified as a feminist. Meanwhile, the combined impact of the Women’s Movement and the Civil Rights Movement provided inspiration for African American women writers such as Toni Morrison (1931–2019), who burst on the scene with a series of novels in the 1970s, including The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977). Her slavery novel Beloved (1987) was one of the highlights of American literature in the 1980s and is widely considered to be her masterpiece. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, becoming the first native-born American writer to win that prize since Steinbeck in 1962.

The African American woman writer Alice Walker (1944– ) also rose to prominence in the 1970s, reaching the pinnacle of her fame with her novel The Color Purple (1982), which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As a critic, Walker championed Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), helping it to gain renewed attention. As a thinker, Walker provided an important new point of view for American feminism, which had hitherto been dominated by white women. Indeed, Walker’s black feminist perspective was new enough that she coined the term “womanism” to set it apart from white-dominated feminism.

N. Scott Momaday’s (1934– ) novel House Made of Dawn (1968) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has been credited with triggering an upsurge in the production of Native American Literature that has been labeled the “Native American Renaissance.” Key novels in this movement include James Welch’s (1940–2003) Winter in the Blood (1974), Leslie Marmon Silko’s (1948– ) Ceremony (1977), and Gerald Vizenor’s (1934– ) Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (1978, revised in 1990 as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles). Perhaps the Native American to ultimately become the most prominent of all isLouise Erdrich’s (1954– ), whose Love Medicine (1984) was an important early contribution and whose Future Home of the Living God (2017) is an important dystopian novel somewhat in the mode of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The Night Watchman (2020) made Erdrich the first Native American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

With Gravity’s Rainbow leading the way, the 1970s marked the first decade in which full-blown postmodernism became the dominant movement in American literature. Set in the years just after World War II, Gravity’s Rainbow was filled with linguistic shenanigans and playful references to popular culture. It also marked the rise of “historiographic metafiction,” a kind of postmodern fiction set in the historical past but not necessarily limited by accepted versions of historical truth, often mixing real people and fictional characters. Other examples include works such as Ishmael Reed’s (1938– ) sprawling African American novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972), which includes important elements of magic realism, and E. L. Doctorow’s (1931–2015) leftist historical novel Ragtime (1975), which makes especially good use of a wide range of historical figures in creating a vivid vision of the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. Going forward, novels such as Don DeLillo’s (1936– ) White Noise (1985) and Underworld (1997) and David Foster Wallace’s (1962–2008) Infinite Jest (1996) demonstrated the staying power of postmodern fiction, while Cormac McCarthy’s (1933– ) ultra-violent Blood Meridian (1985) was far less playful in its treatment of the historical past. Important new voices began to sound in American literature in the 1980s as well, including the Hispanic American Sandra Cisneros (1954– ), author of The House on Mango Street (1983), and the Asian American Amy Tan (1952– ), author of The Joy Luck Club (1989).

Jay McInerney’s (1955– ) Bright Lights, Big City (1984) was seen by many to capture the spirit of the American 1980s (especially the New York City party scene) perhaps more than any other novel. However, given the superficiality of American culture in the 1980s, some have seen McInerney’s work as somewhat superficial as well. Indeed, American fiction from the 1980s forward has often been accused of lacking substance, despite its high degree of technical proficiency, a proficiency gained partly through the growth of creative writing programs in American universities. The same might also be said for another popular writer of the era, Bret Easton Ellis (1964– ), though Ellis’s more openly satirical approach has perhaps produced more biting commentaries on American culture and society. Ellis’s Less Than Zero (1985), can be seen as a companion to Bright Lights, Big City, with a focus on Los Angeles, instead of New York. Ellis’s most effective satire, meanwhile, is probably that found in the controversial American Psycho (1991), a vicious takedown of American consumer society in the late 1980s.

The twenty-first century got off to a fast start in American fiction with the 2001 publication of Michael Chabon’s (1963– ) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2001), which draws upon the Jewish-dominated roots of the American comic book industry, and Jonathan Franzen’s (1959– ) The Corrections (2001), a family saga written in a largely realist vein. Also important during this period was Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003), a partly autobiographical novel that also veers into the realm of magical realism. Major figures such as Pynchon, Doctorow, DeLillo, and McCarthy continued to produce important work well into the new century as well, as American fictionhas continued to be dominated by works in a postmodern vein. Postmodernism has seen increasing production from women writers sa well, as in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2012), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. American fiction has also been enriched by a variety of multicultural developments, such as the growing importance of Hispanic American literature. For example, a 2015 poll conducted by the BBC named The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), a sprawling postmodern romp by the Dominican-born Juno Díaz (1968– ), as the greatest novel of the twenty-first century to that point. Native American literature has also received increased attention in recent years. For example, novels such as Erdrich’s The Round House (2012) and The Night Watchman (2020) have won major literary awards.

African American literature has also remained strong in the twenty-first century. For example, Colson Whitehead (1969– ), who mixes postmodern inventiveness with a serious concern with the history of race in America in The Underground Railroad (2016). Whitehead, however, turns to a more realist mode in The Nickel Boys (2019), which deals with the history of atrocities committed against the inmates at a Florida reform school. Both of these novels won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Meanwhile, the Nigerian woman writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977– ), who was educated in the United States and still splits her time between the U.S. and her native Nigeria, is also a marker of the increasingly global nature of all culture. Novels by Adichie such as Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), set in the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970), and Americanah (2013), set in both Nigeria and the U.S., are among the most critically respected of the current century.

Finally, it should be noted that various types of genre fiction have remained important in American culture since 1945. One of the most prominent American authors of this period, for example, has been the prolific horror writer Stephen King (1947– ). Science fiction, however, is perhaps the type of genre fiction that has been most coherently conceived as a literary phenomenon. Science fiction as we know it congealed in the pulp magazines that arose in America in the years before World War II. The long 1950s were then marked by a greater maturity in science fiction publishing that saw the genre shift much of its most important work into the novel form, with leading writers from the pulps—such as Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988) and Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)—graduating to the novel form, sometimes by consolidating earlier stories into novels. New sf writers of the 1950s, such as Philip K. Dick, began to move in directions that ultimately gained more respect from literary critics, to the point where sf is now a highly respected genre among American literary critics.

Science fiction responded to the changing political climate of the 1960s with a so-called New Wave (a term borrowed from the French nouvelle vague movement in film) that emphasized social and political relevance as well as greater literary complexity. The New Wave was a genuinely transatlantic phenomenon, spearheaded by editors such as Britain’s Michael Moorcock (New Worlds magazine) and America’s Judith Merril (in the anthology England Swings). Such editors attempted to make sf more sophisticated in terms of literary style as well as content, responding especially to trends of the 1960s to include franker treatment of issues such as drugs and sexuality. In addition to Moorcock himself, leading New Wave writers include the British Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, and M. John Harrison, as well as the Americans Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and Norman Spinrad. The New Wave was dominated to some extent by short stories, but New Wave writers also produced important novels, including Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron (1969) and Delany’s Triton (1976). Finally, the New Wave’s interest in politically relevant fiction helped, among other things, to encourage more women to write sf, and one of the most important phenomena related to the New Wave was a surge in the production of utopian fiction, especially that by women writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ in the 1970s, though Ernest Callenbach’s environmentalist utopia Ecotopia (1975) can be placed within this phenomenon as well.

Science fiction’s New Wave also exercised an influence on more mainstream American writers, such as Pynchon, whose early fiction also influenced the “cyberpunk” science fiction that moved science fiction moved in an important new direction in the 1980s as it responded to innovations in digital technologies. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is generally seen as the foundational work. Cyberpunk fiction again tended toward literary sophistication (several cyberpunk writers counted Pynchon as a major influence) but also tended to be rather cynical and pessimistic about the ability of technology to build a better world. However, some science fiction writers, such as the African American woman writer Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) and the socialist environmentalist Kim Stanley Robinson (1952– ), countered with sophisticated political novels with strong utopian dimensions. Butler’s “Xenogenesis” trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989)—and Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy—Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and Blue Mars (1996)—were among the most important works of sf of the last decades of the twentieth century.

In recent years, older writers such as Robinson have continued to produce important work, with Robinson producing particularly important work in the area of climate fiction, of which he is probably America’s leading producer. Not surprisingly, given the importance of this issue, “climate fiction” has become one of the most important trends in American literature in the twenty-first century. Mainstream writers—such as Annie Proulx in Barkskins (2016)­ and Richard Powers in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory (2018)—have made important contributions in this area, though science fiction writers such as Robinson and Neal Stephenson have continued to lead the way, with predecessors in science fiction in this area going all the way back to The Space Merchants (1953), by Frederik Pol and Cyril M. Kornbluth, with 1970s writers such as Le Guin and Callenbach making especially important contributions, as well.

 Perhaps the most exciting recent trend in American science fiction is the rise of women science fiction writers, as signaled by the fact that, in 2021 (and for the first time), all of the nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel were women. Many of the leading women writers in science fiction in recent years have been women of color, as signaled by the fact that the African American women writer N. K. Jemisin (1972– ), whose work mixes fantasy with science fiction, while focuses on crucial issues such as climate and gender, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for all three novels in her “Broken Earth” trilogy (2015–2017), thus becoming the first African American author to win that award at all, and the first author to win the Best Novel Hugo in three consecutive years, as well as the first to win for all three novels in a trilogy.

Course Outline

This course will attempt to capture some of the diversity of the American novel since World War II, while at the same time providing familiarity with many of the most important and critically respected American novels published during this period. In order to achieve these goals, this course will pursue a number of different paths in exploring its subject matter, dividing its coverage into four separate segments. This outline includes links to the on-line reading assignments for the individual novels, though the recommended method of accessing these assignments is through the ***CONTENT*** folder.

I. Postmodernism

The first segment of this course will provide an introduction to postmodernism and the postmodern novel, based on the fact that, after the canonization of modernism in the 1950s, a new cultural movement, drawing much of its aesthetic inspiration from modernism, quickly became the dominant form in American literature and culture. The rise of this new movement, which has come to be known as postmodernism, is itself a complex topic that involve influences both from culture and from society at large. A general introduction to postmodernism can be found here. Postmodernism is a broad phenomenon that has exerted a powerful influence on virtually all American cultural forms since the 1960s, including the novel. Indeed, virtually all American novels since that time have at least some postmodern tendencies, even though many are not obviously and overtly postmodern.

This course will begin with a reading of The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), by Thomas Pynchon, who is almost certainly the most important American postmodern novelist. This early novel will allow us to observe an early text that has exercised a tremendous influence on the evolution of the postmodern novel ever since. A full discussion of this novel can be found here. We will next move to a reading of White Noise (1985), by Don DeLillo, another of America’s most influential postmodern writers. A full discussion of that novel can be found here. Finally, we will complete this very brief overview of postmodern novels with a reading of Shalimar the Clown (2005), by Salman Rushdie, a writer who had already established a major (and highly controversial) international reputation before immigrating to the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A full discussion of this novel can be found here. Among other things, Rushdie’s inclusion in this course calls attention to the increasingly global nature of literary culture in this century, as well as to the important contributions of immigrant writers to American literature.

II. Confronting Gender Issues

Partly to balance the masculine tilt of the first segment of this course, the second segment will focus on novels by women, and in particular on novels by women that are especially concerned with issues related to gender. The first of these, The Bell Jar (1963), is the only novel by the distinguished poet Sylvia Plath. This novel addresses many issues faced by young American women at the beginning of the 1960s and has often been seen as a sort of female version of The Catcher in the Rye, which does the same thing for young American men at the beginning of the 1950s. A full discussion of The Bell Jar can be found here. We will then turn to a reading of Beloved (1986), the most critically respected novel by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. This complex novel deals with the baleful legacy of American slavery, but focuses especially in the impact of slavery on women. A full discussion of this novel can be found here. We conclude this segment of the course with a reading of Future Home of the Living God (2017), a dystopian novel by Louise Erdrich with a strong focus on gender. A full discussion of this novel can be found here.

III. Confronting the Past: History in the American Novel

Some theoretical studies of the postmodern novel have argued that such novels have a particularly difficult time engaging with the past in ways that sufficiently acknowledge the past as the history of the present. Yet a number of postmodern novels have, in fact, effectively focused on the past. We will begin this segment with a reading of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), which is set in the early-twentieth-century period when the rise of consumer capitalism transformed American society and helped to crush many popular movements for social justice. For a full discussion of that novel, click here. We will next turn to Pynchon’s Vineland (1990), set in the aftermath of the failure of the countercultural political movements to the 1960s fully to achieve their goals of social justice. For a full discussion of that novel, click here. Finally, we will read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), which addresses both the phenomenon of American slavery and its historical aftermath. For a full discussion of that novel, click here.

IV. Confronting the Future: Climate Fiction

The potential for catastrophic climate change is almost certainly the most serious threat facing the entire human race in the twenty-first century. American novelists have recognized and addressed problems related to the environment and climate change for well over half a century now. But, given the increased urgency of the threat, American novelists of the twenty-first century have paid particularly serious attention to climate change. In recent years, many of the finest American novelists have turned their attention to this issue, producing an impressive body of work that is sometimes collectively known as “climate fiction.” In the final segment of this course, we will look at several of the most important works of American climate in the twenty-first century, beginning with The Fifth Season (2015), by N. K. Jemison, an imaginative work that combines science fiction and fantasy to produce a different perspective on climate change. For a full discussion of that novel click here. Next, we will look at a powerful climate change novel written from a very different and much more realistic perspective, Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. For a full discussion of this novel, click here. We will then conclude the course with The Ministry for the Future (2020), perhaps the greatest climate novel by a writer who is perhaps America’s greatest writer of climate fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson. For a full discussion of that novel, click here.

Course Schedule


Week 1 (January 17-19): Introduction to the Course.

Week 2 (January 24-26): Intro to Postmodernism (click here). The Crying of Lot 49 (click here).

Week 3 (January 31-February 2): White Noise (click here).

Week 4 (February 7-February 9): Shalimar the Clown (click here).


Week 5: (February 14-February 16): The Bell Jar (click here).

Week 6: (February 21-February 23): Beloved (click here).

Week 7: (February 28-March 2): Future Home of the Living God (click here).


Week 8: (March 7-March 9): Ragtime (click here).

Week 8: (March 9): MID-TERM EXAM

Week 9: (March 14-March 16): Vineland (click here).

Week 10: (March 21-March 23): SPRING BREAK. No classes.

Week 11: (March 28-March 30): The Underground Railroad (click here).


Week 12: (April 4-April 6): The Fifth Season (click here).

Week 13: (April 11-April 13): The Overstory (click here).

Week 14: (April 18-April 20): The Overstory (cont.).

Week 15: (April 25-April 27): The Ministry for the Future (click here).

Week 16: (May 2-May 4): The Ministry for the Future (cont.)