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Cities and Modernity

Professor Richard Dennis

Unit value: 0.5 unit                               Year 3                                    Term 1


Brief Course Description

The course focuses on new forms of representation of, and new kinds of space in, major cities in Britain and North America in the period 1840-1939, interpreting changes in metropolitan society, culture and built environment in the light of ideas about ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization’.

Course Aims

The course aims to provide a geographical interpretation of relevant work in historical geography and related disciplines (urban history, planning, art history, cultural studies, literature); to familiarise students with different types of source material and methods for reconstructing and representing the past; and to stimulate students’ own interest in the environments and cultures of cities in the past.

Content of Course

The course concentrates on questions of modernization and modernity in cities in Britain, USA and Canada (especially London, New York, Chicago and Toronto), primarily in the period 1840-1939. Following an introductory session on alternative approaches to modernity, several sessions will be devoted to different forms of representation, including social surveys, maps, photographs, novels and works of art. The second half of the course will focus on ‘new spaces’ in modernizing cities, including specialized residential, commercial and recreational environments. Students will be required to complete a course paper combining a review of relevant secondary literature with the use of a ‘primary’ source, such as contemporary (1840-1939) newspaper articles, directories, censuses, maps or other archival material, or a novel or artwork.

Method of Teaching

The course will be taught in weekly two-hour lecture/seminars, each structured around a chapter from my book, Cities in Modernity: Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 2008). You will also be expected to visit relevant museums, galleries, exhibitions, e.g. at Museum of London/Museum in Docklands, London Transport Museum.

Form of Assessment

A 2,500-word course paper, combining the analysis/interpretation of a ‘primary’ source (e.g. newspaper articles, a contemporary survey, census or maps, a novel or a work of art) with more usual secondary literature (50%); and a 2-hour, 2-question exam (50%).

Pre-requisites and Relationship with Other Courses

You should normally have taken the 1st-year ‘London’ course and 2nd-year ‘Methods in Human Geography’. Most important, you should enjoy and be prepared for a wide range of reading! You should have a sufficiently open mind to recognise the value of both quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis. ‘Cities and Modernity’ can usefully be combined with other historical/cultural/urban courses such as those taught by Caroline Bressey, Claire Dwyer, Andrew Harris, James Kneale, Ann Varley, Matthew Gandy and Alan Latham.

Suggested Reading:

The key text for the course is Richard Dennis, Cities in Modernity (CUP, 2008). Good general texts include Mark Girouard, Cities and People (Yale Univ. Press), and Tony Sutcliffe (ed) Metropolis 1890-1940 (Mansell). More challenging theoretically are: Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Verso) and Patrick Joyce, The Rule of Freedom (Verso).  On London, see Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (Yale), Stephen Inwood, City of Cities (Macmillan).

But, for the summer, read some novels – John Dos Passos Manhattan Transfer; Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie; Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth (both with good 1990s film versions); Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, George Gissing, In The Year of Jubilee, etc. On the web, ‘City Sites: an electronic book, multimedia essays on New York and Chicago, 1870-1939’ http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/citysites/ and (focused on 19th-c Bloomsbury, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/. On DVD, see two ‘city portraits’: the passion and poetry ‘Of Time and the City’ (Terence Davies, 2008) on Liverpool, and the wildly surreal ‘My Winnipeg’ (Guy Maddin, 2008). Current and forthcoming art exhibitions in London include ‘George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life’ [Royal Academy, CLOSES 9th June, a must-see for anybody serious about Cities & Modernity]; ‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ [Tate Britain, 26th June – 20th Oct]; ‘Poster Art 150 – London Underground’s Greatest Designs’ [London Transport Museum, until 27th October]; and ‘An American in London: Whistler and the Thames’ [Dulwich Picture Gallery, 16th Oct – 12th Jan 2014].