New York Stories

Module code: AM3043
Module co-ordinator: Dr Catherine Morley

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

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 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. Through the detailed study of key literary texts within their historical and cultural contexts, we will try to answer the above 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. We will take a roughly chronological approach, and you will be encouraged to explore the broader history and culture of the city (in art, music, and film, for example) as well as the individual texts themselves.

You will need to read the set texts before each seminar in order to be prepared to contribute to the discussion. You will collaborate with other students on non-assessed discussion papers on the set texts, and lead class discussions on the texts and the social and political contexts in which they were produced.

Topics covered

We will begin in the Gilded Age with Henry James' 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' Manhattan Transfer, which will enable us to explore such themes as Eastern European immigration, generational conflict, the experience of women, consumerism, the media and the onset of literary modernism.

We will then spend two weeks on 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.

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


  • 10 two-hour seminars


  • Essay 1, 1,500 words (30%)
  • Essay 2, 3,500 words (70%)