City on a Hill
City on a Hill. In 1630, as the ship Arbella was carrying the colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to their new home in America, John Winthrop gave his famous sermon when he described this new future home and land as a “city on a hill.” While this phrase has resonated in American culture for almost 400 years, what it actually means hasn’t always been fully understood or appreciated. This course will consider the history of American literature and culture from the perspective of John Winthrop’s city—that is, of the cities “on the hill” (as utopian constructions) and cities in their much more gritty realities. Over the next few weeks we will look at a variety of texts that emerge from, and help construct, the kinds of urban spaces that Americans have experienced. In each century, the city has played a key role in helping shape both the American psyche and American literature.
What is it like to live in a city? Jonathan Raban says that “living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living.” This course will be about the “arts” of urban living, both as literature depicts it and as we inhabitants experience it. We will consider the city from two perspectives. First, we will read a variety of literary texts that emerge from the city. These will be stories about the new meanings produced by the city (Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”), the new forms of the urban novel (Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and Paul Auster’s City of Glass), and the new ways that people interact there (LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman and Nella Larson’s Passing). These narratives will be accompanied by readings about the city’s rise and its manifold meanings: Georg Simmel on the “stranger,” Michel de Certeau on walking in the city, etc. This focus on the literary representations of the city will depend on what I consider to be the second aspect of the course, which will depend on the students’ own negotiations with, and understandings of, the city.