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Humans of the U: Jeremy Rosen

Popular culture and high literature are not mutually exclusive.

“There’s a blurry line between popular culture and what we might think of as ‘high literature.’ Traditionally, people tend to think of popular literature as more fun, fast-paced fiction, while high literature includes the classics and contemporary works that are more ‘serious’ and tackle major issues.

I’m most interested in where those neat categories break down in something we might call popular literary culture. I love teaching courses on genre and have taught detective fiction, science fiction and most recently ‘cli-fi,’ which is fiction that deals with the effects of climate catastrophe on the present and possible futures. In my first book, I examined what I call ‘minor character elaboration’ where novels and films take a minor character from a classic work of literature and retell the classic story from the minor character’s point of view.

Some recent examples include ‘Wicked’ and ‘Malificent.’ A high literary example is ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys which came out in 1966 and focuses on the madwoman in the attic from ‘Jane Eyre.’ With minor character elaborations, writers tend to build the character into someone totally new and when you get their side of the story, you find out they’re a totally different character than you thought they were.

Through my research and teaching of English, American and world literature, I noticed a fascination with historical minor characters and Paris. People remain fascinated with that moment in the 1920s when American writers, artists and intellectuals flocked to Paris as a place they saw as a destination for artistic and cultural freedom.

I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to go to Paris and talk about why all the American writers and artists like Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin were writing there instead of in the U.S.?’ I designed a program for the U’s Go Learn program and we’ll take our third trip to Paris in May 2020.

I can’t think of anything better than reading great works of literature while looking at art that was produced in the same time period and eating terrific food. It’s this unique literary, artistic and culinary journey that allows us to learn what made Paris the iconic city it is today.

Reading and a life of scholarship and travel seem very similar to me because once you get going, there’s no end to the exploration. There is more reading and seeing to be done than any of us could do in a million lifetimes. Go Learn is an opportunity to combine these things in an incredible teaching experience with adults who really want to be there and are an incredibly captive audience.”

—Jeremy Rosen, associate professor of English

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