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Realism, Naturalism, Modernism: Suggested Paper Topics

Paper Topics on the Realism, Naturalism, Modernism

Questions that can serve as the starting point for an essay.

  • Discuss the railroad imagery and related images from black vernacular traditions in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”
  • Use selections in the Realism section of the anthology to construct a definition of the African American protest novel. What seems to have inspired Baldwin to write “Everybody’s Protest Novel”? Who is the “everybody” in his title?
  • Analyze family structures and relationships as represented in Brooks’s poems. How do these representations compare with African American family dynamics as represented by other black poets of the middle of the twentieth century in the United States?
  • Compare and contrast Gwendolyn Brooks’s early poetry with the selections by Hughes to explain why these two poets are often paired.
  • Describe how the concept of the American Dream functions in Ellison’s writing. Does Ellison seem to a strong believer in the promise of the American Dream for African Americans? Why or why not? Cite specific passages from the anthology selections by Ellison to support your conclusion.
  • A major theme of A Raisin in the Sun is conflict between generations. Identify passages and scenes in which Lorraine Hansberry develops generational conflict, and describe how each functions to advance the plot and main conflict of the drama.
  • How does the American dream figure as a trope inHansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun? Do the characters experience a conventional version of the American dream? Discuss the dreams of the individual characters in the play. Are any of the dreams fulfilled, or do they all remain unaccomplished?
  • Study Robert Hayden’s “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday,” and discuss the poem’s central figure. Why is this figure important? Why would she be considered a “queen of Sunday”?
  • Analyze Chester B. Himes’s development of “maleness” and “masculinity” in his fiction.
  • Analyze the intersection of race, incarceration, and literary reconstruction by comparing Himes’s story of prison life with the anthology selections by three other African American men who drew on personal experiences with the penal system in the generation after Himes: Malcolm X, Etheridge Knight, and Eldridge Cleaver.
  • To what extent do you find Bob Kaufman’s poetry to be characterized by Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness”? What two identities, if any, do you read Kaufman’s speakers as struggling to reconcile?
  • Discuss Kaufman’s uses of the following rhetorical features in his poetry: improvisation, irregular rhythm, reversals, and regeneration. Cite excerpts from the poems to support your readings.
  • Compare and contrast the use of jazz imagery in poetry by Hughes and Kaufman. What common jazz features and structures do you find in the two poets’ writing?
  • Discuss ways that Ann Petry’s The Street comments on social hierarchies and, in particular, working-class and lower-class African American women. What contentions does the novel assert on this topic, and how?
  • Research literary naturalism. Explain whether you think Petry’s fiction conforms to the classic conventions of literary naturalism. Does her black identity affect her deployment of the classic conventions?
  • Analyze ways that race, class, gender, violence, and sexuality intersect in Petry’s fiction. Compare Petry to another black author whose work combines at least two of these factors. Do the factors clash? If so, how is the clash between them represented differently from one author to another? If you do not find the factors to clash, what seems to establish the harmony between them?
  • Compare and contrast the anthology texts by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison with the selections by Dorothy West. What commonalities exist between the three despite their differing viewpoints and the subject matter of their works?
  • Melvin B. Tolson proclaimed that the African diaspora had great influence on literary and cultural constructs in the United States and Europe. Discuss ways you find this contention represented in his work. What other writers of this era seem similarly influenced by this (or any) estimation of the influence of diaspora?
  • Study influences on Tolson’s writings by listening to the vernacular selections on the Audio Companion CD, including “Satchmo.” Enumerate ways that Tolson seems to have been influenced by black vernacular musicians and singers who preceded him.
  • Describe the use of flashback as a literary device in The Living Is Easy. How does its use help readers understand the novel’s characters and situations? How would the novel be different if West had not used flashback?
  • To enrich your understanding of intertextuality and recurrent symbols in African American literature, examine the dog and the canary as rhetorical figures, such as those Petry references at the end of Chapter 1 of The Street. How do these figures function in other African American texts you have studied? How does Petry raise these figures to the level of symbol at the outset of her novel? What do the figures portend about the plot that will unfold in the novel?
  • Research the concept of “spiritual poverty,” and discuss how this concept emerges in Petry’s fiction. Who does the novelist portray as experiencing spiritual poverty? Compare spiritual poverty to (economic) poverty, and explain the differences between these two concepts.
  • Examine the use of religious allusions and imagery in Margaret Walker’s poetry. Discuss the ways that religious allusions function in “Prophets for a New Day.”
  • Margaret Walker celebrates both the heroes and the antiheroes of earlier black vernacular traditions, including Stackolee and John Henry. How does she revise the conventional forms of these figures? In her work, are the figures similar or dissimilar? What rhetorical devices does she use to manipulate readings of them as now similar, now different from one another?
  • Discuss ways that West critiques institutions of patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny in The Living Is Easy.
  • Compare and contrast the representation—and the rejection—of myths of black female sexuality in West’s The Living Is Easy and Petry’s The Street.
  • Review Ellison’s depiction of Richard Wright. After reading excerpts from Wright, how well do you think Ellison’s description of Wright corresponds with Wright’s perception of himself?
  • Compare and contrast Ellison’s Invisible Man with Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground.”
  • To further your understanding of Ellison’s Invisible Man, research etymologies, denotations, and connotations of the following terms: invisibility, boomerang, spiral, cycles, and hibernation.
  • What symbols does Wright apply to “The Man Who Lived Underground”? What does “the underground” symbolize? Develop several different interpretations, supporting your claims with cited textual evidence.
  • Analyze ways that Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Writing” locates and celebrates the origins of African American cultures in black vernacular traditions by reading a sampling of texts in the Vernacular Traditions section and applying Wright’s theory to these texts. Do they support his contention that there is “a Negro way of life in America”? To what extent do you agree with Wright’s comments about the black vernacular traditions?
  • Consider how an author’s gender identity affects the structure, plot, and tropes of stories by comparing and contrasting Petry’s “Like a Winding Street” and Wright’s “Long Black Song.” How do these two texts differ in their depictions of the domestic physical assault of a woman by a black man?
  • To understand the “Wright School,” compare and contrast the philosophies undergirding Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha.
  • Explain how and why Petry’s use of naturalism can be said to require a revision of the concept of the “Wright School.”
  • To understand the impact of Wright’s mentorship of both Ellison and Baldwin, select a text by each of the three authors that espouses a literary theory and trace Wright’s influence on the two younger writers.
  • Consider the expansive cultural contexts that form the background of the work by Ellison and by Baldwin, both mentees of Richard Wright. Among the contexts, consider the Korean conflict and McCarthyism.
  • Discuss the intertextuality of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun by speculating about why Hansberry takes her title from Hughes’s poem “Harlem.” In addition, how does the play function as a response to Wright’s Native Son, also set in Chicago?

Research Paper Topics on the Realism, Naturalism, Modernism

Paper topics that require research.

  • Identify any differences you find in the literature produced by black students who matriculated at colleges and universities during the mid-twentieth century, African Americans who worked with the Workers Progress Administration and various writers' groups, and those blacks who went to Europe as part of the expatriate artist community.
  • To enhance your knowledge of Melvin B. Tolson and Robert Hayden as poets of the realism period who experimented with history and folk material as well as with Modernist strategies, research the G.I. Bill, McCarthyism, and the increasing international agitation for civil rights on the substance and style of mid-twentieth-century black writers.
  • Research the modern prison in the United States. Identify African American writers who read the prison as a symbol of modern slavery. Besides Chester B. Himes, what other novelists draw on the conventions and tropes of chattel slavery in their fiction?
  • As you read the African American writers of this era, pay attention to ways that social institutions (such as marriage) and cultural productions (such as mainstream magazines and newspapers) create and preserve class structures in the United States. Analyze the authors' representations of such issues as entitlement, authenticity, and belonging, especially when they ensue from race, gender, and class conflicts.
  • During the Great Migration, the United States underwent historic changes in relocation of population and in the economy. How do portrayals of the Great Migration in writings by African Americans reflect its effects on black Americans across the country?
  • Research the Great Migration to explain how the historical impact of this event is brought into A Raisin in the Sun. Then research other authors' works that also incorporate the Great Migration as a major historical event in African American literary history. Compare these works with Hansberry's, and share your assessment.
  • Research the political climate as it relates to race relations and other issues of importance to African Americans in the 1950s and 60s. What comment do Baldwin's essays make on this climate? On race relations between blacks and whites?
  • Baldwin contends in "Stranger in the Village" that white residents in the Swiss village about which he writes "cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world." Use details from the essay to support or refute this claim. Then examine ways of interpreting the claim and their effects on Baldwin's juxtaposition of the authenticity of the relationship of his Swiss neighbors to Dante, Shakespeare, and other European institutions.
  • Enumerate features that Baldwin borrows from both blues and jazz vernacular traditions in "Sonny's Blues." What conventions and tropes does he deploy to keep these traditions distinct from one another? What selections from the black vernacular music traditions on the Audio Companion CD help elucidate Baldwin's rhetorical strategies?
  • In what way does Brooks's Maud Martha function as a bildungsroman? Cite specific instances to support your response. How does Brooks's novel compare with other African American women writers' use of the conventions of the bildungsroman, such as Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Kincaid's Annie John?
  • Research the critical and the popular receptions of Invisible Man in the American literary world when it first appeared. Were these receptions different from one another? If so, how? What themes in the novel seem to have contributed to the ways it was received by critics? By general readers?
  • Research Bessie Smith as an inspiration for Hayden's "Homage to the Empress of the Blues." Why does she figure so prominently in Hayden's poetry? Discuss Smith's significance as a cultural icon and recurring poetic allusion.
  • Trace black vernacular music influences on Hayden's poetry. Identify passages and structures in the poems that reveal the impact of these musical traditions on his work. Discuss how the incorporation of music affects Hayden's poetry.
  • To enrich your appreciation for "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday," listen to the recordings by Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and other women artists included on the Audio Companion CD. While Hayden's poem does not explicitly commemorate these artists, the Audio Companion recordings can help you understand historical and cultural figures who parallel "Queen(s) of Sunday."
  • To explicate Hayden's "Middle Passage," research particular events, biographies, or terms with which you may be unfamiliar. For example, the opening line of "Middle Passage" references names of slave ships; Estrella and Esperanza are Spanish words for "star" and "hope," respectively. Also, analyze the irony Hayden deploys with these historical names.
  • Compare and contrast at least two different film versions of Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Discuss with your class similarities and differences between the two, including each director's choices of actors, staging, scenes portrayed, and cinematography. Identify the version you prefer, and explain your choice.
  • Contrast the representation of motherhood by Petry with that by several other African American authors, both male and female. Do you find an underlying, universal claim about motherhood, or are the texts distinctly different?
  • Research several representations of the vernacular folk figure John Henry. Compare the differing accounts, and share your findings with the class in an oral presentation. Explain how you think the sociopolitical and historical contents in which a figure such as John Henry is constructed affect the traits and characteristics of the folk figure created by Tolson.
  • Analyze Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia alongside a section of Eliot's The Waste Land (complete with footnotes), and discuss Modernist conventions that the poems share.
  • Compare Margaret Walker's "For Malcolm X" with other works by African American poets that pay homage to historical figures. What kinds of intertextuality emerge among these poems?
  • Research "negritude" and the "Negritude movement." Examine its manifestations in Wright's fiction. How important does the movement seem to have been to Wright? To other African American writers of the Realism era?
  • To contextualize the political environment in which Wright wrote, research Jim Crow and Jim Crow laws. Discuss your findings, noting when individual laws were passed, their impact, and the degree to which they are realistically represented in Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow, an Autobiographical Sketch."
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