The Harold Seminar Performance
Western Literature & The Essay (9th Grade)
The backbone of the ninth grade English course is formed by modern European and American literature, with Shakespeare, Sophocles, and poets from all periods in permanent residence. Freshmen vigorously air their responses to literature, hone their essay skills, and experiment creatively throughout the year. Grammar and vocabulary exercises reinforce reading and writing skills.
Poetry, Drama & The Novel (10th Grade)
Sophomores encounter increasing demands on the quality of their thinking and writing, while we provide a widening background in the Western classical tradition and in modern voices. Across the year students examine several genres in depth. The first term typically concentrates on drama and poetry, the second on short forms and the novel. Authors include Shakespeare and Camus, Faulkner and O’Connor. In an additional class period each week, small groups of six to ten sophomores practice their analytic skills and work on individual writing problems.
And Ya Don’t Stop – Literature After 1979
Writers keep going, no? And the rules change, yes? In this course, we’ll look at what happened recently, what’s happening now, focusing on all kinds of work—from David Foster Wallace’s jests to Christopher Wallace’s problems, from Salman Rushdie’s verses to George R.R. Martin’s thrones. We’ll look at big books, at small books, at ‘high-art,’ at the mass-market—we’ll look at anything and everything we can, and we’ll consider how it changed and continues changing the field. What’s postmodern maximalism? What’s rap? How do we deal with graphic novels? Who’s writing what now? We’ll try it all, try to figure out the last few decades, and maybe even apply late literary theory to selfies.
For term papers, students will write on unassigned works of their own selection. Class texts will vary to suit students’ experience and temperament, but the following authors could feature: Kathy Acker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Anne Carson, Mark Danielewski, Junot Diaz, Joan Didion, Brett Easton Ellis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Mazzuchelli, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nirvana, Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace), Chuck Palahniuk, Salman Rushdie, Alice Walker, David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest is highly likely), George R. R. Martin.
The Art of Lying: Literature and Deception
In this course we will read and write texts that show all the signs of bearing witness-whether the texts in question are pure fabrication or first-person testimonials. As we crapshoot our way through these works, we’ll hunt down such elusives as: How do we make a fabrication ring true? What do we mean by “voice” as opposed to “style?” What are the merits or limits of a “poetry of presence?” As Oscar Wilde asks in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” does life imitate art, or vice versa? We seek not a consensus (you may choose to eschew the real-world connect of any poesis) but a study of each writer’s truest falsehoods.
Students will respond creatively and analytically, in discussion and in frequent writing assignments, to texts as diverse as, say: Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer, Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Danticat’s Krik! Krak!, the biblical Joseph narrative, Woolf’s Moments of Being and/or Mrs. Dalloway, Babel’s Red Cavalry, James’s Daisy Miller, Shakespeare’s The Tempest or King Lear, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Wintersen’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, Mendelsohn’s I Was Amelia Earhart, Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, and a slew of poems, additional short stories (Kleist, Twain, Orwell, Paley, Bambara), and personal essays. Students will also be asked to submit a creative writing portfolio and a term paper.
What is the Bible? How does the Bible frame the way we see? No other work has such complex, indeed complicated influence on us, yet it is quite possible to be deeply, even dangerously, unaware of how The Bible informs our lives. In Genesis humankind is given dominion. But what does that mean? Are we pint-sized slave masters who can take what we want, consequences be damned? Or does “dominion” suggest that we are protective stewards of the earth? The Bible is fundamental—and on another order from a writer like Shakespeare. The Bible as a collection of writings is sui generis—font of law and language and narrative, emerging in severe majesty from the dark backward and abysm of ancient tradition. It is a sacred history, and yet, with its poetry and its foundational narratives, it is literature, too.
We will study the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Tanakh or Old Testament, with special focus on its first five books; we will close the year in late spring with an introduction to the New Testament. Our study will proceed in a secular key, resting on an unusual mix of literary, historical, and theological concerns. Close investigation into Genesis in particular will introduce us to important aspects of reading the Hebrew Bible. We will explore its polytheistic antecedents, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Frequent critical and creative writing assignments come with this class; there will be a major research-based paper. And because this course depends on cumulative understanding, there will be quizzes and final exams to help us solidify what we have learned.
Don’t You Forget About Me: Recovered Voices in Literature
This course will explore the importance of memory and the horror of forgetting. It’s a familiar theme: the ghost in Hamlet begs Hamlet to “Remember [him],” before evaporating into the dawn. But the anxiety characters feel about forgetting loved ones or, worse, being forgotten, often sets them upon dark and irreversible courses of action. Our first forgotten figure is Hermione of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. She is a queen accused of adultery by her husband, whose rage explodes with such force that his kingdom is left ruined. What happens in the years that follow reveals as much about the eternal structures of Time and Nature as it does the fallibility of royalty. After Shakespeare, we will read Charlotte Brontë’s extraordinary Jane Eyre. Populated almost entirely by characters running from their pasts, Jane Eyre is a splendid example of Gothic fiction as well as a delightful glimpse into the strange, harsh world of Brontë’s imagination. Time allowing, we will end the term with A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ glorious novel about the importance of remembering oneself, as well as others.
Beloved is Morrison’s unflinching and brilliant novel about a mother whose decisions in the past remain painful throughout her life. Be prepared: even the novel’s dedication page has caused controversy, and the subject matter in the rest of the book is equally loaded. Michael Ondaatje is best known as the writer of The English Patient, but my favorite book of his is In the Skin of a Lion, so we shall read it. It’s a fragmented, so-called “post-modern” text, which, among other things, imagines the harrowing existences of civil engineers toiling on mammoth construction sites. We will end the year with either To the Lighthouse or The Sound and the Fury, both rich and exciting novels about the impact of time on a family.
Along the way we will study poems and short stories, a bit of Bible, and write a number of short and long papers. We will also write stories, memoirs, and personal essays on themes related to the texts we study. By the end of the year you will have a strong portfolio of both creative and expository work. There will be a great deal of writing.
Forbidden Fruit: Desire and Taboo in 19th and 20th Century Literature
Batter my heart, three-person’d God…
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
It is torture to want what you cannot have. Quentin Compson can find relief from his all-consuming desire for his sister only at the bottom of the Charles River. Lady Brett Ashley is calm, cool and collected…until she meets Romero the bullfighter. “I’m a goner,” she says. “It’s tearing me all up inside.” Literary characters who feel the hot touch of forbidden desire are all, it would seem, goners. If only Emma Bovary could have been satisfied with that nice husband of hers.
Those who desire what they should not (who pursue young girls, other people’s spouses or their own siblings, for example) deserve our pity. “Poor Quentin you’ve never done that have you…” Falling between the sad and the tragic, they are grotesque.
Tormented as he is by his desires, Humbert Humbert assures us that “The dimmest of my pollutive dreams was a thousand times more dazzling than all the adultery the most virile writer of genius or the most talented impotent might imagine.” If he’s right, then it is we—the law abiding, the faithful—who are to be pitied. And what of those whose desires inspire our sympathy despite being forbidden by time or place—the woman who wants to make art rather than polite dinner conversation, the interracial couple that wishes to marry though it is against the law of the land? Would any of us ask that they accept the status quo? Does history render all taboos obsolete, or are there some rules that should never be broken?
Let’s decide together.
We will read as many of the following novels as time will allow: Lolita, The Sound and the Fury, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse, The Age of Innocence, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Sun Also Rises. We will supplement our study of these works with close readings of poetry, film (Chinatown, Jungle Fever), drama (Homecoming), psychoanalytic writings (Freud), Supreme Court cases (Loving vs. Virginia, Bowers vs. Hardwick), and cultural criticism (Foucault).
Empires In Literature
When an empire falls, how do we measure its rise and respond to its passing? Has it catalyzed a new culture? Does its memory create fatal longing and haunted dreams? In this course we track empires as they flare, or follow their traces as they dim and expire. We ask what power politics or ethno-centrism, what ego or treasure hunt initially builds empire. Does the dominator enlighten or exploit and spit out? Do the dominated ever forget?
Including brief trips to Genesis and the Roman Empire, we visit several addresses in the western and non-western world. Reading E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, we watch the British pretend to know the people they dominate. Traveling with Conrad and Naipaul and Achebe, we encounter Africa as bloody testing ground of western values. In the shadow of the Third Reich we walk the haunted landscape of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and endure Rosa’s hell in Ozick’s The Shawl. We visit the shores of the American empire (Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien) and either the brave new world of The Tempest or the disintegrating empire of King Lear.
We will also visit artists who boost or blast empire through painting and sculpture and architecture, through photography and film (Apocalypse Now, Battle of Algiers, Lumumba: Death of a Prophet). Other possible writers include: Arundhati Roy; Herman Melville; James Joyce; Leo Tolstoy; Vladimir Nabokov; Marguerite Duras; J. M. Coetzee; Nadine Gordimer; George Orwell;; Jamaica Kincaid; Claude Levi-Strauss; Eric Hobsbawm; Edward Said; Noam Chomsky.
“The Great War.” “The War to End All Wars.” World War I
(Please see Interdisciplinary Studies)
Family Dramas: The (Dysfunctional) Family in Literature
All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy
in its own way.
Nobody who has not been in the interior of a family can say what the difficulties
of any individual of that family might be.
Throughout literature we encounter the dysfunctional family in all its rage and glory, and we may feel repulsed by it, but there is no question that we can identify with it on many levels. What makes each family in some way simultaneously ordinary, unique, and insane? Are there patterns of dysfunction or paradigmatic relationships that we can examine in the context of some larger socio-political picture? Are there determinants of certain typical family problems? Are (family) relationships always, to some degree, problematic, and even crazy? In this course we live closely with the dysfunctional family as it has been written, while we try to unpack the idea of family itself.
Authors may include, but are not limited to, William Shakespeare (King Lear), Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), James Baldwin (If Beale Street Could Talk), Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace), Willa Cather (One of Ours), and Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night). Fiction and drama are interspersed with poetry and the occasional piece of nonfiction.
Students will be expected to write frequently, both critically and creatively. Each text will lead to at least one expository assignment, while some may require several shorter essays, and others may even invite a creative response. A piece of creative nonfiction is a possibility.
Literature of Displacement
The central question of this course is one every high-school senior must eventually ask: What good can come from leaving home? Immigrants and exiles are often forced to give up everything that’s familiar—land and language, community and culture—but the experience seems to make for good writing: Ovid was kicked out of Rome; Dante and Petrarch were banished from Florence; Byron and Shelley fled England. By the early twentieth century, expatriation becomes a form of literary education for modernists like Joyce, Eliot, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.
Many of the authors in this course were displaced in one sense or another, and many of the books involve characters who reinvent themselves in new places—Antony in Egypt, Rastignac in Paris, Pnin in America—but in the second half of the year, we will look at displacement of a more universal sort: at texts that make us consider all life as foreign travel, with alienation and miscommunication as its inevitable conditions.
The following syllabus contains one or two books too many, but we will pare down the list once I know what members of the class have already read:
Passages from: The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Derek Walcott’s Omeros
Shorter work by: Kafka, Joyce, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jamaica Kincaid, Elizabeth Bishop, Ha Jin
In addition to taking readers to other worlds, transformed versions of our world, different times, different dimensions–science fiction is perhaps the most philosophical literary genre. In its ability to play with the parameters of our existence, sci-fi sheds a special light on the great questions of selfhood, ethics, the nature of reality, the accessibility of truth. We will begin with the founders of science fiction, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, after which our guides in this adventure of story and ideas will be drawn from the following list (I note each author’s most famous work, not necessarily the work we will read): Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Series), Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey), Robert Heinlin (Stranger in a Strange Land), Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles), Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Frank Herbert (Dune), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness), Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), Roger Zelazny, (Lord of Light). We will, of course, read a number of short stories; as all sci-fi readers know, the short story is a favorite medium of many practitioners of the genre.
Under The Influence: Studies In Literary Style
“Hawthorne interests me considerably,” Flannery O’Connor once confessed. “I feel more of a kinship with him than any other American writer—though some of what he wrote I can’t make myself read through to the end.” That’s sort of the way it goes with influences: we need them, and then we need not to need them.
The aim of this class will to be read contemporary writers, mostly women, through the prism of earlier writers they admired. The ones I’ve chosen happen to be men. We won’t worry about whether these influences are attested, as with Hawthorne and O’Connor, or simply apparent, as with Chekhov and Alice Munro. Everyone likes to say that Munro, the 2014 Nobel laureate in literature, is “our Chekhov,” except for Alice Munro, who seems never to have mentioned him. The writer can also choose to wink at a forebear, as Lydia Davis does in “Kafka Cooks Dinner.”
Davis’s weird little pieces look an awful lot like Kafka’s, after all. But how deep do resemblances of this sort go? How much do they matter? This will be one of our questions. Hawthorne and O’Connor share interests in allegory, for instance, and moral evil. Chekhov and Munro are interested in—what? Forests, marriages, luncheons. It’s not easy to say.
Many of our authors specialize in short fiction, and we’ll spend a third of the year reading stories. The rest will be given over to four modern novels. Woolf and Sebald, who write about history and memory, have for me the mournful sophistication of older siblings. Robinson and Faulkner, on the other hand, may not share a sensibility, but she wrote an introduction to his great novel, and one can think of her working against his tradition as well as within it. Enemies are influences, too.
Hawthorne, stories Flannery O’Connor, stories
Chekhov, stories Alice Munro, stories
Woolf, To the Lighthouse W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants
Kafka, stories Lydia Davis, stories
Faulkner, Sound & Fury Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
The Victorian Age
In this elective, we study English literature between 1837 and 1901, during the reign of Queen Victoria. It was a time of unprecedented change. Railways, steamships, and the telegraph altered people’s understanding of space and time. The population of London quadrupled; the right to vote expanded more than tenfold (though women were still excluded). While the Empire extended into every continent on the planet, traditional English views of life got called into question by Darwinism, socialism, and feminism.
It was also the heyday of the novel, a genre that only recently had attained respectability. We will read several of the period’s major novels, paying special attention to literary form and to social and political contexts. Expect to read two of the following three books, depending on students’ previous reading experience: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). Our biggest and most important work will be George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874), the “three-decker” masterpiece that Virginia Woolf famously called the only novel ever written for grown-ups. It’s almost a thousand pages long, so come prepared.
Lyric poetry will also get our attention, especially the work of Keats, who died in 1821 but became popular during the Victorian period; Wordsworth, the poet laureate till his death in 1850; Tennyson; and the early work of William Butler Yeats. For historical backgrounds, we’ll turn to excerpts from A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians, Richard D. Altick’s The English Common Reader, and Eric Hobsbawn’s The Age of Capital.