English/Museums & Society 389.359, Spring 2015
T/Th, 4:30 – 5:45 pm, Macksey Room, Brody Learning Commons
Gabrielle Dean, PhD, Curator of Literary Rare Books and Manuscripts

Office hours are by appointment, after class, over email; conversations big and small are welcome.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

—William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun (1950)

“We are all curators in the postmodern world, whether we want to be or not.”

—William Gibson, from “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls” (2001)

Writers produce archives: the notes, drafts, letters, and publications that are the witnesses to a work’s creation. A writer’s archive might also include personal materials, like photographs or memoirs, or research records. Literary archives can take other forms as well. A writer’s library reveals what he or she read, for example, which raises interesting questions about the writer’s connections to other writers. Sometimes readers create archives about writers, by collecting all of a writer’s publications—or all instances of a certain publication that brings many writers together.

What these different kinds of archives have in common is that each presents us with a two-way window onto literary culture. Each collection offers insight into its component items and their inter-relationships; it might illustrate a particular author’s writing process, or tell us how a publisher chose what to publish, or document the historical connections between a literary work and related events. At the same time, each collection illustrates the values of the community that has assumed responsibility for it. Literary archives thus challenge us to think critically about what is preserved, by whom, and why.

These questions have become even more urgent in the digital era. On the one hand, given the turn towards electronic composition and publication, “everything” is now potentially preservable in digitized form. (In fact that’s not true—but people think it is.) On the other hand, this sheer volume of digital data, plus its very unstable nature, means that archivists and curators must grapple with the “what and why” questions of collection-building on an unprecedented scale.

In this course, we will confront these issues through hands-on examination of a variety of physical and digital archives created within the context of early to mid twentieth-century American literary modernism, part of an international artistic rebellion against established forms, subjects, and styles. We will spend the first part of the semester reading works of literature by and examining archival collections about three prose writers who represent very different aspects of modernism: the popular and boisterous journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken; the detective story writer Dashiell Hammett, famous for his “hard-boiled” mysteries; and the avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, whose works are often so experimental as to be unclassifiable by conventional genre standards. We’ll think about what their different archives say about each writer’s status within modernism, and how their different kinds of modernism have helped to shape their archival traces.

In the second part of the semester, we will collectively build a digital exhibition of selected archival materials, with sections devoted to each writer and a fourth section they all share: a geographical layer representing each writer’s relationship to the city of Baltimore.

Course Materials


  • Blog: Contribute 5 blog posts with pictures (many of them will be photos you take yourself) to our collectively authored blog, responding to assigned readings and questions. (25%)
  • Essay: Write a 7-8 page, argument-based, academic essay about one of the literary works under discussion. (25%)
  • Final project: Create a portfolio of materials documenting your contributions to the digital exhibition, which includes finding and choosing objects, entering meta-data, and writing explanatory text; and upload your materials to the exhibition website. The portfolio also includes a brief class presentation. (25%)
  • Participation: Good citizenship in the class community is particularly important for this course since two of our projects, the blog and the exhibition, are collaborative. We are all counting on each other. Participation includes attendance, your contribution to class discussion, and the completion of several short exercises. See below for more information about participation. (25%)

Grading Policies

I design assignments that I think will be fun, interesting, and useful; some will be familiar in terms of genre, and some may ask you to try new things. I appreciate it when students take intelligent risks in their work, and so I also will offer you the chance to revise much of the writing you do for this class.

Assignments are due at 5 pm on the deadline unless noted otherwise in the assignment description. If you need to turn in an assignment after the deadline because of illness or an emergency, please ask me for an extension by email ahead of time. (If the nature of the emergency is such that you cannot ask for an extension ahead of time, I will understand.) I am not opposed to extensions if you have a reasonable need for one, but they should not interfere with your ability to keep up or my ability to assess your work in an appropriate context. Without an authorized extension, your late assignment will be penalized half a grade for each 24-hour delay: that is, an “A” will become an “A-”and so on. Assignments turned in late on the day they are due are considered a day late.

The final project portfolio will involve several stages of revision, taking into account feedback from me and from peer reviewers. Your revisions and your contributions to the peer review process are part of your grade for the portfolio.

Please complete class readings before class so that you can participate in discussion.

Participation is vital to this course since our main projects are collaborative. But even beyond those projects, your voice is important since we will function as a seminar–with emphasis on discussion rather than on lectures from me. Please come to class ready to think, question, brainstorm, discuss, investigate, and work cooperatively as part of a team. Regular attendance is the foundation of participation. Your participation grade will also be based on the amount of attention and active engagement you demonstrate in class, by asking questions, volunteering your ideas, discussing your classmates’ ideas, responding to my inquiries, and completing in-class exercises. If you are curious about your participation grade or would like help, please ask me.

There is no traditional final exam for this class. Although our established exam date is May 7, we will use May 12 as our deadline for the final class project—but you are free to turn in your final project ahead of this date if you wish.

My Classroom Philosophy

I ask for your responsible class attendance and thoughtful participation; timely completion of assignments; collaborative and thoughtful approach to our work; openness to learning; and community spirit. In return, I aim to devise readings, activities, and assignments that offer learning opportunities within this course and, hopefully, beyond it; to share what I know; to facilitate the respectful exchange of ideas; to give you thoughtful feedback; to grade your work fairly and with your interests in mind; and to support a classroom community. If we succeed, learning will take place through the community we create, not as a one-way street.


Because this class culminates in a digital exhibition that we’ll create together, this schedule is subject to modification as the term progresses. I will distribute detailed schedules every few weeks. In the second half of the semester, we’ll operate less like a traditional classroom and more like a workshop.

Tuesday Thursday Friday

  • first day of our class
  • introductions

  • archives 101, modernism 101
  • in-class exercise

  • questionnaire due

  • archives remixed self-guided field trip

  • Mencken: newspaperman

  • archives remixed exercise due

  • Mencken: stylist, editor

  • Mencken: a case study

  • blog post 1 due

  • Hammett: Glass Key

  • Hammett: Glass Key
  • Glass Key map due

  • Hammett: Continental Op

  • Hammett: letters

  • blog post 2 due

  • Stein: Autobiography
  • intro to essay

  • Stein: Autobiography
  • Auto timeline due

  • Stein: portraits

  • Stein: essays

  • blog post 3 due





  • questions about essay
  • intro to final project

  • exhibition readings

  • essays due

  • Omeka workshop

  • project meetings

  • revisions due, blog posts 1-3

  • field trip to Pratt Library’s Mencken collection

  • Mencken revisited

  • blog post 4 due

  • Hammett revisited: watch The Glass Key (1942)

  • Stein revisited: discussion with guest Phoebe Stein

  • annotated bibliographies due

  • archives revisited

  • archives revisited

  • blog post 5 due

  • exhibition peer review and project conferences

  • last day of our class
  • presentations

  • last day of classes
  • exhibition labels and texts due

  • reading period ends

  • revisions due, blog posts 4-5

  • final project portfolio due
  • exhibition due
  • final exercise due

  • last day of exams


Schedule color codes

important academic calendar events

blog posts

critical essay

final project portfolio and exhibition

readings and short exercises, part of your participation grade



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