Syllabus

This class considers the consequences of sex for the modern woman. We will begin by reading six novels by female authors of the American interwar period (1915-1929). We will end the course by comparing these novels to a recent narrative of feeling, femininity, and female sexuality: the 2011 novel Fifty Shades of Grey (initially, and infamously, a work of Twilight fan fiction). In most of these texts, unmarried female characters have sex without dying, getting pregnant, derailing their careers, or otherwise falling from grace. These characters also travel abroad, pursue higher education, and nurture creative ambitions. Several narratives end with maternity, but these, too, repudiate conventional depictions of female sexuality and desire. The interwar-era plots may seem unremarkable by contemporary standards, but they were shocking enough to interwar readers to inspire book bans, best-seller status, and, in one case, a syndicated comic strip, a Broadway musical, and a Hollywood film. In other words, the tumult caused by Fifty Shades of Grey (also a controversial best-seller that has inspired book bans and a much-discussed movie) is hardly new.

Despite this initial popular and critical attention, these innovative literary projects have been largely ignored by scholars of the past eighty years. We will consider the myriad reasons for this oversight. We will look at the novels’ original reviews, often a mixture of acclaim and condemnation. We will also consider the works’ cultural and historical contexts, from the rise of pink-collar labor, suffrage, birth control, and free love advocacy to the Great War, prohibition, and emergent modernism. We will also examine the period’s antipathy towards nineteenth-century mores of femininity and sexuality, often linked under the sign of “sentimentalism”—a literary mode associated with hyperbolic displays of emotion, religious morality, and women writers and readers. How do these modern female authors grapple with assumptions about “women’s literature”? How do their modern works reinvent as well as critique this tradition? Finally, when considered in relation to Fifty Shades of Grey, how do the paradoxes, double standards, and double binds these novels register persist in contemporary expectations of female sexuality, femininity, and literature by women writers?

Reading list

(In order of course reading)

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)

Anzia Yezierska, Salome of the Tenements (1923)

Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

Frances Newman, The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926)

Edith Wharton, Twilight Sleep (1927)

Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1929)

E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey (2011)*

*Based on the episodic fan fiction “Master of the Universe,” by Snowqueen’s Icedragon (the pen name of Erika Leonard, subsequently known as E. L. James), a dynamic we will also discuss.

We will also look at a few choice non-fiction texts that discuss women, sex, and modern literature. Examples include excerpts from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898), Margaret Sanger’s What Every Girl Should Know (1916), and H. L. Mencken’s In Defense of Women (1922). These supplementary readings are posted on the course website.