Interdisciplinary Honors Seminars

Colors in Literature from Poe to the Present

01:090:296:03 Index# 12062
Professor Nicholas Gaskill, SAS - English
T 01:10P - 02:30P
TH 01:10P - 02:30P
Honors College, Rm S124
College Ave Campus



Color is at once one of the most common features of our perceptual experience and one of the most puzzling. Is it in our minds or in the world? Do all people see colors in the same way, or do linguistic categories and cultural associations influence how we experience particular hues? How do specific colors become associated with particular identities, such that blue is gendered male and pink female, or that muted colors signify respectability while highlighter tints scream “hipster”? Why, as Goethe put it, do “people of refinement have a disinclination to colors,” and what lies behind this disinclination? In this course, we will look at how literary writers have taken up these and other questions about the philosophical, cultural, and aesthetic aspects of color. We will ask: what does color allow writers to do? Through what literary strategies have they incorporated its sensory power and cultural complexity into their work? What tensions arise between the linguistic medium of poetry or fiction and the irrecourseducibly visual nature of color? We will consider the links between color and pain, color and sex, color and the spiritual, and color and meaning, and we will trace a literary tradition that uses color to think about the capacities and limitations of writing itself. Our readings will include texts by philosophers, painters, poets, and novelists. Likely candidates include Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Nella Larsen, Henri Matisse, Virginia Woolf, Vincent van Gogh, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Aldous Huxley, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Thomas Pynchon, Michel Pastoureau, Anne Carson, and Maggie Nelson. The assignments, which are designed to get you to engage both critically and creatively with our topic, will include two essays and weekly worksheets.

NICHOLAS GASKILL studies nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature, philosophy, and visual culture. He’s currently writing a book on theories and technologies of color perception at the turn of the twentieth century, which includes chapters on home decoration, color education in Kindergarten, and color’s role in modernist painting and poetry, among other chromatic matters. He is also the co-editor of a collection of essays on the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and he has published several articles on American literature and pragmatism.