ENGL 537 A: Topics in American Studies

Latinx Literature and the Problem of Realism

Meeting Time: 
MW 1:30pm - 3:20pm
MGH 286
Joint Sections: 
C LIT 549 A
Monika Kaup
Monika Kaup

Syllabus Description:

ENGL 537       w/ C LIT 549

Fall 2019

Professor Monika Kaup

Latinx Literature and the Problem of Realism

As a mode facilitating the serious treatment of ordinary people and their lifeworlds, realism is associated with the humanist or left-wing democratization of literature and culture.  As such, realism has long been the dominant mode of Latinx literature, notable for its strong working-class and non-elite, popular orientation.  This seminar asks: how have U.S. Latino/a writers “done” realism from the 19th-century to the present? We will be reading four representative works: María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don (18885), Américo Paredes, George Washington Gómez (1930s; 1990), Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), and Francisco Goldman, The Ordinary Seaman (1997) that examine Latino contributions to the genre, focusing on their unique resolutions of what Fredric Jameson calls the (shifting) “antinomies of realism” at various landmark moments of this literary mode: classical 19th-century realism (realism vs. romance); early 20th-century realism at its dissolution (realism vs. modernism); post-WW II magical realism (the American marvelous real vs. postmodernism); and the phenomenon of contemporary neo-realism after postmodernism. We will ask questions such as: What position do Latinx authors take on what counts as “real/ism”?  Can we rely on our senses, or do we need to turn to facts, or possibly theories about hidden causes and social structures?  Can reality be grasped from a single perspective, or is it necessary to take a bird’s eye view? To what extent can Latinx realism be theorized as “peripheral realism” within a literary world-systems framework? What contributions and innovations have Latinx writers (a minoritized and racialized population rather than a nation) introduced to this narrative mode originating in the Enlightenment quest for rational knowledge and the rise of the European nation-state?

The persistence of literary realism after its supposed obsolescence at the end of the 19th century also demonstrates that the concept of realism as such needs to be revisited. Realism is not naïve, as suggested by modernist/poststructuralist/postmodern polemic.  19th-century realist writers actually introduced a whole range of new formal techniques that transformed the literary landscape. We need a new concept of literary realism that recognizes the inherent creativity of language as world-making. It is true that literary realism is impossible in an absolute sense because it is premised on the false assumption of unmediated representation of external reality. In fact, many self-declared realists (from the 19th century to the present) were/are writing against the inevitable conventionality of language that they knew/know vitiates any pursuit of unmediated truth. Realism is both an aesthetic and a critical problematic; the understanding of the latter (not the former) is flawed. The existing concept of the real (“old” realism) is identical with the modern scientific and reductionist notion of the real,  according to which only material things are irreducibly real, whereas social and mental phenomena (think: literature, mythology, art) as dismissed as fabricated and fictitious. The reductionist modern scientific notion of the real has always been inadequate for the singular reality of the objects of the study of the humanities.

Required course materials:

Primary texts: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don; Américo Paredes, George Washington Gómez; Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima; Francisco Goldman, The Ordinary Seaman; Pam Morris, Realism

a Course Reader with required secondary readings.


Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 11:00pm