Classical Myth and Modern American Culture

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Ron Harris
Myth and Literature
Lecture 1, 1:20–2:10 MWF
Western Culture: Literature and the Arts I
Lecture 1, 11:00–11:50 TR; Discussion 308, 12:05–12:55 F
Elementary Latin
Lecture 5, 2:25–3:15 MTWR

At its core, history is a collection of ancient stories with themes that often appear over and over again. It’s no wonder, then, that ancient myths find their way into modern lives every day. So, a central question explored by this FIG is: How do myths find their ways into our lives—into our poetry, our literature, our popular culture? To answer this question, we will dive into studies of classical literature as well as contemporary artistic and literary adaptations to examine the continuing presence of myth in society today.

We will investigate puzzles: How do the lost fragments of an ancient Greek poem travel from archeologists, to translators, to us, speaking across time of love and desire? And these questions lead to other explorations:

  • What do our campus tall-tales tell us about UW–Madison’s history and values?
  • When we enter into these stories through creative retelling, how do we become a more integral part of our campus?
  • What do the stories of diverse American traditions—the Gullah people of South Carolina, whose language resonates with African rhythms—tell us about how African storytelling traditions connect to the Br’er Rabbit stories of the American South?
  • And what is the Mississippi Blues music tradition doing in an American Indian novel from the Pacific Northwest?

The main seminar in this FIG, English 155: “Classical Myth and Modern Literature,” explores ways that modern American culture interprets, adopts, and adapts classical myth in order to address contemporary social, aesthetic, and political concerns. Each course in the FIG deals primarily with the classical worlds of Greece and Rome, but by tracing these adaptations and the transmission of stories from one culture, time, and place to another, you will also study other ancient civilizations from the Middle East, Africa, and Native America. The historical, archaeological, and literary approaches to the legacy of the classical world will take you out of the classroom, to the museum, the library, the laboratory, and the green spaces across campus—each with its own story to tell.

Integrated Liberal Studies 203: “Western Culture: Literature and the Arts I” — This course examines Western art and literature from the earliest human civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt to the late medieval period, with substantial emphasis on classical antiquity and a view toward revealing how art and literature of western culture shape today’s modern culture. You will gain foundational knowledge of the Western intellectual tradition, and this includes acquiring critical skills for viewing art and reading literature. Emphasis is placed on developing critical thinking and discussion skills.

Latin 103: “Elementary Latin” — The “dead” language, Latin, will never become more alive as it will when you are able to see all of its influence in the texts we study and also in other classes you pursue throughout your college career. Learning Latin is an opportunity and skill of a lifetime. This may be the only time you will be able to learn mythology while studying it. Carpe diem! Travel through time and discover why our world is shaped the way it is today as you listen to what stories from other times and places have to tell us about who we are today—and do some storytelling of your own!