Event—Adult Education

The "Paranoid Style" in US Literature


How can “paranoid fiction” in US literature help us make sense of conspiracist thought?

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed. 1975 edition.

Class Description

How is the "plot" of a novel similar to a secret, coordinated scheme? Paranoid fiction, a genre said to have emerged in the 1960s, but that has antecedents in the previous century, uses the resources of narrative fiction to explore suspicions that reality is being manipulated by malign forces "pulling the strings."

Through three texts, Pafko at the Wall, The Crying of Lot 49, and Mumbo Jumbo, as well as selected theoretical readings, this class will help us consider some of the ways that this literary genre helps make sense of conspiracist thought: what are its conventions, why does it continue to appeal to aggrieved parties (as in the cases of QAnon and COVID denialism, to give two contemporary examples), and is there a uniquely American valence of this way of viewing the world?

Tony Papanikolas received his PhD in English from Northwestern University in 2020, and has taught classes on American literature, literary criticism, and composition in Florida for the past two years. His primary research interest is American literature and abolitionism.

Materials List


  • Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo. Scribner, 1996. ISBN: 978-0684824772
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. Harper Perennial, 2006. ISBN: 978-0060913076
  • Don DeLillo, Pafko at the Wall: A Novella. Scribner, 2001. ISBN: 978-0743230001

First Reading

  • Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," PDF provided by the instructor.

Cost and Registration

Six sessions, $247 ($220.50 for Newberry members, seniors, and students). Learn about becoming a member.

To register multiple people for this class, please go through the course calendar in Learning Stream, our registration platform. When you select the course and register, you’ll be prompted to add another registrant.


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