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William E. Naff

University of Massachusetts at Amherst


A Seminar on the Literature of Transition

Japanese /Comparative Literature (course description)

The seminar will be built around a close reading of the recent, prize-winning translation of Shimazaki Töson's Before the Dawn.

Before the Dawn is both a historical study of the years between the coming of Perry in 1853 and the protagonist's death in 1886 and a partially fictionalized reconstruction of the experience of the author's family during those years. Straddling the fields of history and of literature in complex but intellectually fruitful ways, it raises a number of important issues having to do with the nature of a traditional society and of cultural interaction. During the thirty-three years in which its action takes place Japan made many of the decisions and adjustments which have determined the nature of its role in the world down to the present. The issues raised by the pressures which European and American powers brought to bear on Japan are typical of those which were being exerted on other non-European nations during this time.

In its structure, stance, and underlying assumptions, Before the Dawn also raises interesting questions about the relationship between history and fiction and of the boundaries between them. It will also provide a point of comparison as members of the seminar take up other historical and literary works having to do with the Meiji Restoration in Japan and with transitions in other societies.

Requirements: assigned readings, participation in class discussions, and independent research leading to a class presentation and a term paper.

Prerequisites: J144/Comlit 152; junior standing in some field of literary study, or instructor's permission. A knowledge of Japanese is not required.

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