Professor maps NYC landscape for honors course

| January 11, 2013

The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Cheryl Mares, Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor of English, spent the past week in New York City to prepare for a special honors class this spring.

“New York City in Literature and Art” is an interdisciplinary course that will introduce students to artistic interpretations of the city since the mid-19th century.

“The course focuses on the ways that New York City has captured artists’ and writers’ imaginations in the course of its evolution from a struggling colony on the tip of an island the native peoples called ‘Mannahatta’ to the world city that it is today,” said Mares, who majored in history as an undergraduate and later received her M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature.

Students will explore New York’s emergence as a metropolis through the lenses of immigration, segregation and mobility, cosmopolitanism and the neighborhood, queer New York and postmodernism. To better understand the city’s significance in literature and the visual arts, they will also have the opportunity to experience New York first hand during a three-day trip.

“The places we will be visiting … this spring are all related to the texts we will be reading for the course and the films, photos and paintings we will be viewing,” Mares said.

Having lived there for three years while in graduate school, and having returned many times since, Mares knows New York fairly well. But narrowing down the possibilities to what’s doable in just a few days takes some field research. To come up with a ‘map’ for the trip, the professor scoped the city through walking tours of lower Manhattan, Gramercy Park, Union Square, Harlem, Chelsea, the Lower East Side and the Villages.

“I have to make decisions as to which sites we will be visiting or viewing,” she said. “These could include neighborhoods, buildings, streets and avenues, parks and squares, museums, bridges, hotels, bars and other kinds of ‘cityscapes.’ ”

Cheryl Mares in the East Village

Mares wants her students to get a true ‘feel’ for New York — its geography and architecture, but also its culture and history. Immigration has played a crucial role in shaping New York City and its literary and artistic heritage, she says, adding yet another item — and a maybe-item — to her map of must-sees for the spring trip.

“I … want us to visit the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side to see how ‘the other half’ lived,” she said. “By way of contrast, we might consider the opulence on display at the Frick [Collection], which testifies to the concentration of wealth and power by the reigning elite of the time.”

In keeping with the theme of the class, the trip will offer students many different ways of looking at New York City, both metaphorically and literally.

“I would … like to take the students on a harbor cruise so that they have an experiential sense of the island of Manhattan as a physical entity and some idea of the importance of its great natural harbor for the city’s development,” Mares explained.

“And I’d like to take them up to the Top of the Rock [Observation Deck] at the Rockefeller Center or the top of the Empire State Building so that they have a panoramic overview of the city.”

While she won’t be able to show her class everything the city has to offer, students will have plenty of opportunity for in-depth research during the semester.

“Although we will be covering a lot of ground in the course, literally and figuratively, the students will have the chance to go into more depth in their research projects, and we will all benefit from their work when they give presentations based on their research at the end of the term.”

A Colorado native, Mares has been teaching at Sweet Briar since 1982, receiving tenure in 1995. In her classes, she focuses primarily on modern and contemporary fiction and poetry, including post-Colonial literature. Her research interests involve connections between literature, history and politics in contemporary fiction and in works by modernist writers, especially Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, on whom she has published a number of articles. Mares has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and completed her M.A. and Ph.D. at Princeton University. For more information, visit

Janika Carey


Category: Academics, English, Honors