New York Stories

Module code: EN3149

Module co-ordinator: Dr Catherine Morley

If the twentieth century was the century of the city, then no city exercised a stronger grip on the literary imagination than New York. This course gives students the chance to explore an exciting variety of stories and novels written in and about New York between the end of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twenty-first.

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. The course takes a roughly chronological approach, and students are 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.

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 twentieth 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 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.

The course then takes in post-war Jewish New York in Isaac Bashevis Singer's Shadows on the Hudson and the Irish-American experience in J.P. 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.


The module will be taught through weekly two-hour seminars, with the emphasis firmly on vigorous discussion and debate.

Students will be required to collaborate on non-assessed discussion papers on the set texts and to lead class discussions on those texts and the social and political contexts in which they were produced. All students are required to read the set texts in advance of the seminars and to contribute to discussions.

By the end of the module, students will have...

  • Engaged in directed and self-motivated reading and research
  • Explored and evaluated the changing literary representations of New York City
  • Acquired a detailed understanding of modern and contemporary American texts
  • Participated in seminar discussions and group-work activities
  • Encountered and responded to current debates in the discipline
  • Developed their own arguments through assessed work


Students will submit two pieces of written work:

  • A short essay of 1,500 words that focuses on one of the set texts (30%)
  • A 3,500-word essay addressing two set texts (70%)