Welcome to ENGL 3210! In this course, we will explore the terrain of modernist and postmodernist literature (and some film) in the U.S. It may feel like a wild ride. Some of your readings you may find quite challenging and, I hope, profoundly moving and stimulating.
By the end of the course, I hope you will have a keen understanding of both movements, in terms of cultural history and literary techniques. And I hope you will be able to make connections between modernism and postmodernism and developments in contemporary literature, in your future studies and your own independent reading.
We are beginning the course with a film, The Jazz Singer (1927), for a number of reasons. First of all, it raises one theme central to modernism: the clash between tradition and modernity, within the family and the larger culture. In both cases, jazz embodies the new, the risqué, as a challenge to traditional social mores and as an actual departure from traditional belief, partly represented here by the sacred music of the Jewish religion. Like modernist poetry, jazz brings in new rhythms—oddly enough, though, The Jazz Singer doesn’t include much jazz, only a little bit of ragtime piano-playing.
Second, even as the film inaugurates a new artistic form—the feature-length film with sound—it incorporates and revises elements of older (popular) art forms. That kind of recycling of the past, including older artistic and literary techniques, we will see over and over again in modernist and postmodernist literature.
Another reason we are beginning with The Jazz Singer is that it can feel disorienting and strange to watch it. Why is that a good thing? Because it has been nearly a century since the dawn of modernist literature, and watching the film helps remind us that the early twentieth century was a very different time from ours—to begin with, in terms of gender roles, racial and ethnic stereotypes, and technology. Nevertheless, some of the conflicts of the modernist period persist in our time, and some of its literary techniques are still important to contemporary literature.
I asked you to keep in mind a number of questions below, as you watched the film. For your first blog response, I’d like you to reflect on these quotations from below Rogin’s article, “Blackface, White Noise,” and address all the questions below in your response.
How you organize your response is up to you, but make sure it is composed of coherent paragraphs in a logical order, with no grammatical errors. Avoid simply listing your answers to the questions.
“Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deeper inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the ‘outsider.’ ” – Ralph Ellison
“What America Would Be without Blacks” (1970)
“The Jazz Age introduced modern anti-Semitism into American politics, as traditional rivalry between immigrant and old-stock Americans coalesced with ideological racism… The anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan (legacy of Birth of a Nation) flourished in the 1920s, attacking Jewish control of the motion picture industry.” (88-89)
“The jazz singer rises by putting on the mask of a group that must remain immobile, unassimilable, and fixed at the bottom” (92).
“Blackface also gives Jack access to allegedly black qualities—intense emotionality and the musical expression that results from it. In part these were white fantasies, in part black achievements (jazz)” (102).
“Freeing the son from the Jewish father on the one hand, the black pariah on the other, Jack’s blackface is racial cross-dressing. Just as the white man in classic American literature uses Indians to establish an American identity against the Old World, so the jazz singer uses blacks” (103).
“The most obvious feature of The Jazz Singer… is that it contains no jazz” (112-113).
“African-American jazz was the music of the cosmopolitan New Negro… Blackface minstrelsy in the Jazz Age, by contrast, ventriloquized blacks as rural nostalgia.” (114)
“Jazz may have been the Jazz Age’s name for any up-tempo music” (115).
1) How did you respond to the film? How does it compare – be as specific as you can – to contemporary films you enjoy?
2) What themes about tradition and modernity does the film introduce through the protagonist’s struggles? Be specific.
3) How does its portrayal of immigration and race compare to their representation in our time, in a work of literature or film you are familiar with?
4) What is Rogin’s argument? Summarize it briefly, with minimal quotations.
5) In what ways does Rogin’s argument illuminate the film for you, if it does?