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Question: Sag Harbor is often classified as a bildungsroman novel. What is the history of the bildungsroman tradition in American media (including literature, movies, and television), and how does Whitehead’s novel fit into that tradition?

09 Oct 2022,12:12 AM


Question Option 1: (Topic subject areas: sociology/history/cultural studies/African American studies, literary setting)

In a publicity video for the novel, Whitehead stated that he was interested in exploring the history of the Black middle class vacation community in Sag Harbor on Long Island. What is that history, and how did Whitehead use that history in his novel to speak to larger ideas about leisure/vacation and the Black middle class in America?


Question Option 2: (Topic subject areas: music history/cultural criticism/popular culture/literary characterization)

In Whitehead’s novel, music plays a large role in the protagonist’s, Benji’s life, from the songs he hears his father play on the radio, to the music playing in the background when he first holds a girl’s hand, to the arguments he has with his friends over whether it’s acceptable for rappers to sample other musicians’ work. What does the music in Benji’s life reveal about him as a character, and what does the music in the novel reveal about the culture of the 19080s, the period in which this book was set?


Question Option 3: (Topic subject areas: Media studies/film criticism/literary criticism)

Sag Harbor is often classified as a bildungsroman novel. What is the history of the bildungsroman tradition in American media (including literature, movies, and television), and how does Whitehead’s novel fit into that tradition? Additionally, in analyzing the similarities and differences between Whitehead’s novel and other works in the bildungsroman tradition, how does Whitehead comment on the genre as a whole?


Question Option 4

Develop your own research question based on Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor. If you wish to take this option you must either meet with me or email me your proposed question by Monday, 4/18. I must approve your question/topic before you can proceed. Some potential topic areas you might wish to explore:

  • Developmental psychology: the portrayal of adolescence in the novel
  • American parenting/psychology of parenthood: the psychology of parenting in the 1980s vs. today
  • Gender: How Benji’s conception of gender and manhood changes over the course of the novel
  • History: How Sag Harbor was first established as a whaling community and how Whitehead uses that history (and cultural mention in Moby Dick) to help relay his themes
  • And any other ideas you may have! I’d love to hear what ideas this book gave you!


Expert answer


The bildungsroman is a genre of novel that traces the psychological and moral development of its protagonist from youth to adulthood. This type of novel originated in Germany, and the first English-language example was Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”


American media has a long tradition of bildungsroman novels, starting with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Other notable examples include Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1925).


In terms of its place within the American bildungsroman tradition, Whitehead’s novel is most comparable to Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Both novels are set in the 1920s and explore the decadence and social displacement of that era. Furthermore, both novels feature protagonists who are striving to achieve a sense of self-awareness and maturity.



However, there are also some significant differences between the two novels. Whereas “The Great Gatsby” is primarily a tragedy, “Sag Harbor” is ultimately a comedy. This is reflected in the different endings of the two novels: while “The Great Gatsby” ends with the death of its protagonist, “Sag Harbor” ends with its protagonist triumphantly achieving his goal.


In terms of its style and tone, “Sag Harbor” is also markedly different from “The Great Gatsby.” While Fitzgerald’s novel is renowned for its lyrical and poetic prose, Whitehead’s novel is written in a more straightforward and colloquial style. This difference is reflective of the different themes that the two novels are exploring: while “The Great Gatsby” is primarily concerned with the emptiness of the American dream, “Sag Harbor” is more concerned with the process of self-discovery and self-creation.


Ultimately, “Sag Harbor” is a novel that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. It is a funny, moving, and insightful look at what it means to try to find your place in the world.

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