New York Stories

Module code: EN3149

Module co-ordinator: Dr Catherine Morley

If the 20th century was the century of the city, then no city exercised a stronger grip on the literary imagination than New York. In this module you will explore an exciting variety of stories and novels written in and about New York between the end of the 19th century and the dawn of the 21st.

  • How did writers try to represent the diversity of the urban American melting-pot and how did these representations change over time?

  • How did the literature of New York reflect wider cultural trends?

  • And how did the fictions of the city incorporate the experiences of hitherto marginalised groups like immigrants, women, and African Americans? 

Through the detailed study of key literary texts within their historical and cultural contexts, we will try to answer these questions. We will explore some of the major forms, genres and themes of modern and contemporary fiction, and we will think about the central role that the city - and New York in particular – has played in modern literary culture. Taking a roughly chronological approach, we will also explore the broader history and culture of the city (in art, music and film, for example) as well as the individual texts themselves.

Topics covered

We begin in the Gilded Age with Henry James's novel Washington Square, and then move on to two very different narratives of urban life in the early 20th century, Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers and John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer, which enable us to explore such themes as Eastern European immigration, generational conflict, the experience of women, consumerism, the media, and, of course, the onset of literary modernism.

We will then explore the Harlem Renaissance, looking at the very different fictional perspectives of Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven and Nella Larsen's Passing and concentrating on issues of race and gender in the fiction of the Jazz Age.

After taking in post-war Jewish New York in Isaac Bashevis Singer's Shadows on the Hudson and the Irish-American experience in JP Donleavy's A Fairytale of New York. we will then move into very different territory in Hubert Selby's enormously controversial Last Exit to Brooklyn, with its themes of drug use, street crime, rape and homosexuality.

Moving into the contemporary period, we will look at Paul Auster's postmodern urban mysteries in The New York Trilogy and Bret Easton Ellis's savage satire on Wall Street consumerism American Psycho. Finally, we will end with the trauma of September 11, 2001, and with the diverse perspectives in various short stories in Ulrich Baer's collection and in Don DeLillo's novel Falling Man.




  • Essay, 1,500 words (30%)
  • Essay, 3,500 words (70%)