Please note course description has changed as of 5/3/11.

This course is only open to those students who have completed the first half of the Reading and Composition Requirement.  Please check here for more information about the Reading and Composition requirement.

Comparative Literature N1B:1
TuWTh 10-12:00
211 Dwinelle
Session D
Celine Piser

Tales of San Francisco
This summer, we’ll focus on the city across the bay. San Francisco is known for its diversity and unique character. It is not surprising to find the city featured throughout popular culture—in films, TV shows, literature, music, and even video games. We will take a look at all these media to determine what kind of character San Francisco has come to represent in the past century and why. We’ll compare images of San Francisco as native home and adopted home; we’ll look at the diverse subcultures that have called it home during the twentieth century; we’ll compare its fictional image with the San Francisco we know today. We will also, of course, look at the people that make the city, and focus, in particular, on the languages and voices that share the space. We will ask ourselves if these disparate voices can come together to represent one city, or if they remain discrete, personal representations.

We will begin with a look at San Francisco’s famous detective literature, and at a few of its international stylistic precursors and heirs. We’ll read an excerpt of Voltaire’s Zadig before studying a portrait of San Francisco’s dark side in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, and its 1941 film adaptation by John Huston. We’ll also look at Daniel Pennac’s treatment of the Parisian detective in The Fairy Gunmother, and question his representations of the multiethnic neighborhood of Belleville.

Next, we’ll look at San Francisco as a hub of immigration, multiculturalism, and multilingualism. We’ll read Jade Snow Wong’s representation of Chinese American immigrants in San Francisco in Fifth Chinese Daughter and a collection of short stories by Latino writers in San Francisco. We’ll also read some travel narratives and travel-inspired poetry by early visitors to San Francisco, such as Rudyard Kipling, to get an idea of how the city has developed over the past few centuries.

Finally, we will examine how San Francisco has become a home to alternative lifestyles. We’ll study the Beat Generation, the San Francisco Renaissance and the Japanese poetry traditions that influenced the movement. In Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin writes about sexuality in 1970s San Francisco. We’ll compare his portrait to Gus Van Sant’s film about Harvey Milk, the US’s first openly gay politician, SF city supervisor and self-titled “Mayor of Castro Street.” If we have time, we’ll take a field trip across the bay to see the mythic city in person, and perhaps attend the theatrical production of Maupin’s novel.

Our work on fiction, nonfiction, poetry and film will be supplemented by critical readings from literary theory, sociology and linguistics. You will be expected to complete all reading and writing assignments in a timely manner and actively participate in class discussion. Course grade will be based on demonstrating careful reading and analytical ability through class participation, short assignments, a group project, and analytical and research papers.


Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City
Daniel Pennac, The Fairy Gunmother
Voltaire, Zadig ou la Destinée
Jade Snow Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter
Selections from Rick Heide, Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California
Selections of Japanese poetry
Selections of Beat poetry


John Huston, The Maltese Falcon
Gus Van Sant, Milk