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20th-Century American Fiction

Develop fresh insight into these and eight other great American authors of the 20th century.

20th-Century American Fiction is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 28.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magical and Heartbreaking - One of My Favorites I found this course on American fiction to be spellbinding. Prof Weinstein begins with a fascinating look at how the American notion of self reliance and limitless possibilities leads to a new kind of fiction, like Huckleberry Finn, where an individual with no means can escape the limits of society and "light out for the territories". After a beautiful opening lecture laying out this theme in American literature, he follows it in his second lecture with what happens when this notion of limitless possibility meets a brutal reality. He uses these contrasting themes to illuminate a wide range of american novels, many of which I had read before (and really lliked) but didn't fully grasp. I was just spellbound by this course and didn't want it to end.
Date published: 2022-11-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Equivalent to an upper level college course Professor Weinstein takes an author — a story — and looks at it from multiple angles: the cultural moment, the author’s biography and the artistic merits. Great fun!
Date published: 2021-12-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Weinstein is Brilliant, But... I've taken and very much enjoyed several TGC courses taught by Arnold Weinstein. He is superb. He understands great literature and teaches it extremely well. But I don't care much for this course. I confess it's partly because I don't care much for several of the authors and books he selected. Had he picked authors from earlier in the century (like Wharton and Cather) or others later on (like Bellow and Updike), I would have likely been more positive. I suspect, though, my beef goes deeper. To join with Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, he chose the more sensational and politically correct, including Burroughs and Coover. I don't care for many of these authors for several reasons. I don't think they match up in literary quality.They reflect much of the worst in modernism as to values and merit. And, worst of all, contrary to Weinstein's strained point at the end, they don't do much to "make us whole" or "make connections." Other writers in the 20th century, both domestically and internationally, did so brilliantly, such as Camus in The Plague or even Beckett in "Waiting for Godot." Even in response to tyranny and the terror of war, these and other writers maintained the highest standards and truly did find connections and located purpose in a pained and troubled world. I don't think at all that several of Weinstein's did. So, I count off in my rating, but just a tad. Weinstein on a bad day is still worth four stars!
Date published: 2021-12-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A downer:Unrepresentative choices, much cleverness Overall, I did not enjoy this course, though I adored Prof. Weinstein's two other courses. About half the course celebrates grotesque plots about twisted people with despicable motives, with much obscenity and pretentious perversion. Weinstein did not persuade me that his negative choices and emphases are representative of 20th century American fiction. He started off well, with two good lectures about classic American themes of individualism, freedom and transcendence of the self. But then in Lecture #3 and in Lecture #24 he set up a false dichotomy between being a mythic self and an oppressed nobody. He overlooked the ironic playfulness of Emily Dickinson's Nobody (I'm nobody - who are you? Oh good, there's two of us) which dances halfway between a puffed-up, self-deceptive ego and nothingness. With that said, I did like his discussion of Vonnegut and DeLillo, how they each illuminate contemporary issues in a distinctive style.
Date published: 2021-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Professor! I have listened to several courses by Professor Weinstein and I have loved them all. I majored in English literature in college and now have a PhD in sociology, but I am continually impressed both by his range and depth of knowledge and engaging and thoughtful approach to his subject: a rare find in the academic world, in my experience! He relates literature to life, and both are illuminated- I highly recommend this course and the others taught by him.
Date published: 2018-04-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointed The first three lectures are promising in that they indicate Dr. Weinstein will trace a handful of existential themes through the American literary canon. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Beginning with lecture four, he merely comments on random passages from the readings / books he selected for this course. Hence, the lectures do not cohere in any logical fashion. However, there are a few things to enjoy: 1. Dr. Weinstein engages the text with the kind of respect generally associated with New Criticism. 2. The lectures avoid the kind of literary criticism that's sometimes associated with politics. 3. Finally, the lectures are sprinkled with sage insight into myths and archetypes.
Date published: 2017-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Excellent professor. Thoroughly enjoyed every moment.
Date published: 2017-10-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from More Fitzgerald Lies I was surprised that the professor would reiterate the false story of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the famous quote about the rich. In fact, Hemingway is responsible for a famous misquotation of Fitzgerald's. According to Hemingway, a conversation between him and Fitzgerald went: Fitzgerald: The rich are different than you and me. Hemingway: Yes, they have more money. This never actually happened; it is a retelling of an actual encounter between Hemingway and Mary Colum, which went as follows: Hemingway: I am getting to know the rich. Colum: I think you’ll find the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money. The full quotation is found in Fitzgerald's words in his short story "The Rich Boy" (1926), paragraph 3: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand."
Date published: 2012-09-05
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Professor Arnold Weinstein explores the works of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and others in this remarkable lecture series. Like no one else in the world, Americans grow up believing—or imagining—that they are masters of a destiny without constraint.


Arnold Weinstein

Literature is not information-driven. Instead, it offers us a unique opportunity to see, even to experience, the subjectivity of others. This adds to our own stock.


Brown University

Dr. Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, where he has been teaching for over 35 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in Romance Languages from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Among his many academic honors, research grants, and fellowships is the Younger Humanist Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Fulbright Senior Lecturer Award as a visiting professor at Stockholm University, Brown University's award as best teacher in the humanities, Professeur InvitÈ in American Literature at the Ecole Normale SupÈrieure in Paris, and a Fellowship for University Professors from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Professor Weinstein is the author of many books, including Fictions of the Self: 1550-1800 (1981); Nobody's Home: Speech, Self, and Place in American Fiction from Hawthorne to DeLillo (1993); and A Scream Goes Through The House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life (2003). Northern Arts: The Breakthrough of Scandinavian Literature and Art from Ibsen to Bergman (Princeton University Press, 2008), was named one of the 25 Best Books of 2009 by The Atlantic. Professor Weinstein chaired the Advisory Council on Comparative Literature at Princeton University, is the sponsor of Swedish Studies at Brown, and is actively involved in the American Comparative Literature Association.

By This Professor

American Fiction and the Individualist Creed

01: American Fiction and the Individualist Creed

What are the origins of our belief in freedom and individualism? Do other societies share these beliefs? Can we trace the notion of an "atomic self" from 19th-century figures such as Emerson and Whitman to writers of the 20th century? American fiction makes visible to us these central questions about our national life.

32 min
The American Self—Ghost in Disguise

02: The American Self—Ghost in Disguise

Many 19th-century authors—Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and James—present heroes that are surprisingly empty, spectral, unreal, even to themselves. This view of the Self as hollow is to be found in several major American novels of the 20th century. Writing and language play a role in facing this dilemma.

30 min
What Produces

03: What Produces "Nobody"

In addition to the Existential critique of Self as empty or false, there is an equally powerful social explanation at hand: "Nobody" is produced by the discourses of race, gender, and other powerful forces. Being a Self with an agenda was hardly available to slaves or other minorities including women.

31 min
Sherwood Anderson's

04: Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio"—Writing as the Talking Cure

"Winesburg," once a central text in the canon, is now neglected; why? Anderson is seen as the psychoanalyst of small-town America, and his narrator, George Willard, performs an invaluable purgative role in bringing the repressed villagers to speech. This is a therapeutic function as well as a writerly strategy.

31 min

05: "Winesburg"—A New American Prose-Poetry

Anderson's tales of Winesburg's grotesques have a reach and a philosophic dimension that we have ignored. These stammering tales of confession and expression are semiotic wonders—we can no longer distinguish easily between background and foreground, between details and essentials.

31 min
Hemingway—Journalist, Writer, Legend

06: Hemingway—Journalist, Writer, Legend

Hemingway's brand of macho is politically incorrect today, but his work remains a permanent feature of the American landscape, and his terse, tight-lipped style has influenced generations of journalists and writers. "In Our Time" introduces war and violence to American readers in unheard-of ways.

31 min
Hemingway as Trauma Artist

07: Hemingway as Trauma Artist

The double nature of trauma—physical injury and emotional wound—is ideally suited to Hemingway's narrative manner. In his short stories, he shows us the kinds of damage inflicted by war and violence, and he explores the question: How can we possibly find words to convey these experiences with integrity?

31 min
Hemingway's Cunning Art

08: Hemingway's Cunning Art

The notion of Hemingway as a simple, straightforward, limpid writer is both true and false. The challenge of reading him is to perceive what he called the "fourth and fifth dimensions"; of prose, and in his best stories we glimpse something of this larger realm. We see a more ambitious writer than we had thought.

31 min
F. Scott Fitzgerald—

09: F. Scott Fitzgerald—"Tender Is the Night"—Fitzgerald's Second Act

Fitzgerald, the Golden Boy writer of the 1920s, spends years and years completing "Tender Is the Night," a record of lost innocence and impending crackup. The decay theme is coded in terms of sexual aberration and excess.

32 min
Fitzgerald's Psychiatric Tale

10: Fitzgerald's Psychiatric Tale

Dick Diver, promising young psychiatrist, marries his beautiful, rich, sick patient, Nicole Warren, a transgression of professional wisdom. "Tender" follows the classic psychoanalytic structure: working through defenses and covers to the concealed but poisonous wound.

31 min
Dick's Dying Fall—An American Story

11: Dick's Dying Fall—An American Story

Fitzgerald paints a large canvas of failure, both cultural and artistic, ranging from the Great War to foiled careers. Violence subtends this story at every point—against this fresco of lost hope Diver's grisly decline is charted. The book stages charm's last stand, charm invested with all the charisma that Fitzgerald himself personified.

31 min

12: "Light in August"—Midpoint of the Faulkner Career

Moving from terse narratives of trauma and stream-of-consciousness, Faulkner begins to deal more fully and frontally with racism in "Light in August." The book counterpoints the neurotic, damaged life of Joe Christmas, victim of culture, with the pagan and serene existence of Lena Grove, heroine of Nature.

31 min

13: "Light in August"—Determinism vs. Freedom

Joe Christmas, the white man with a little black blood, is one of Faulkner's supremely dysfunctional characters, and his tortured and violent life is juxtaposed against harmonious events of Nature, especially the birth of Lena's infant. This child whose father is not known centers both the novel and its story of the "Passion Play."

31 min

14: "Light in August"—Novel as Poem, or, Beyond Holocaust

In "Light in August," Faulkner seeks to create a symbolic realm of gestures and meanings that would somehow posit an alternative to the carnage of his racist, misogynistic plot. This new dispensation aims at no less than the revelation of spirit behind flesh, life beyond death, hope outliving horror.

30 min
Zora Neale Hurston's

15: Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God"—Canon Explosion

Hurston's novel, published in 1937 and out of print, became a "cause célèbre" in the mid-1970s, championed especially by black feminist critics. The book charts the tumultuous trajectory of its heroine, Janie Crawford, as she seeks "the horizon" via two dubious marriages.

30 min

16: "Their Eyes Were Watching God"—From Romance to Myth

Janie's great love climax comes when she encounters Tea Cake, Hurston's alluring male god: a playful, generous artist of sorts. Janie and Tea Cake's experience in the flood brings this couple into the book's core of feverish vitality and cosmic forces. Hurston's genius consists in telling her story of emancipation and love in terms at once mythic and vernacular.

30 min
Flannery O'Connor—Realist of Distances

17: Flannery O'Connor—Realist of Distances

O'Connor's stories challenge the premises of realism; she presents a recognizable everyday scene, peopled with the most ordinary folks, and then proceeds to depict miraculous or otherworldly happenings. Her work raises the stark question: How can one depict the spiritual?

32 min
O'Connor—Taking the Measure of the Region

18: O'Connor—Taking the Measure of the Region

Known essentially as a Southern writer, working largely with local Georgia materials, O'Connor probes very deeply into what it means to be from a particular culture, what resources and what blinders that entails. Her most gripping work takes the measure of this scene by inserting it into a framework that includes all history and goes back to the Crucifixion.

31 min
Williams Burroughs—Bad Boy of American Literature

19: Williams Burroughs—Bad Boy of American Literature

Burroughs is known essentially as a Beat Generation writer and author of the drug epic, "Naked Lunch," but this characterization fails to take his measure as a visionary about American culture. His assessment of drugs and the human craving for them opens a shocking new image of the Self.

30 min

20: "Naked Lunch"—The Body in Culture

Burroughs is a rollicking comic writer, even though his humor is hard for many to stomach. He is also a surrealist author, creating figures of human abuse, exploitation, and ecstasy in ways no other author has attempted. His work places the body in a network of forces that alters our understanding of culture.

31 min

21: "Naked Lunch"—Power and Exchange in the Viral World

"Naked Lunch" appears fragmentary and chaotic, but it is structured in the most rigorous fashion imaginable, and fueled by one central plot: The parasite takes over the host. What are the implications of this view? Is there any conceivable ethic to accompany such a perspective?

31 min
Kurt Vonnegut's

22: Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five"—Apocalypse Now

Vonnegut has done what seemed impossible: He wrote a radically experimental book that is also a bestseller. Vonnegut, a survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing, carried this story in him for decades before figuring out how it could possibly be told in a way to express its dreadful power.

30 min
Vonnegut's World—Tralfamadore or Trauma?

23: Vonnegut's World—Tralfamadore or Trauma?

The humor and science fiction dimensions of "Slaughterhouse-Five" have made it appealing to generations of readers, but one must ask: What is the relation between the fantastic other-worldly reprieve that Billy Pilgrim finds on Tralfamadore, and the experiences he has had in the war?

31 min
Robert Coover—Postmodern Fabulator

24: Robert Coover—Postmodern Fabulator

Coover is among the most experimental, playful, and important of our contemporary writers. His work is attuned to power of all stripes, and he seeks to stretch the contours of storytelling in audacious ways. Realism stops making sense, yet there is an undeniable reality-bite to his fictions.

31 min

25: "The Public Burning"—Execution at Times Square

Coover's most significant book, "The Public Burning," considers and reconceives a disturbing chapter in American history: the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as spies at the height of the Cold War. Coover elects to present this grisly story in circus, theater, and jingoist slogans to challenge us to reconsider our own collective past.

32 min
Robert Coover—Fiction as Fission

26: Robert Coover—Fiction as Fission

The Rosenbergs were executed for stealing atomic secrets. Coover has brilliantly explored the real transgression: not their act but nuclear fission itself: the transmutation of the elements in order to liberate energies on a scale never before imagined. Could this be a formula for fiction?

31 min
Toni Morrison's

27: Toni Morrison's "Sula"—From Trauma to Freedom

Toni Morrison, the most celebrated contemporary American writer, fashioned in this early novel a mesmerizing account of a black community, replete with some of the most eccentric and legendary characters in American fiction. A new kind of writing is being born.

31 min

28: "Sula"—New Black Woman

Morrison's tale of two girls, Nel and Sula, is a near scientific account of two ways of being: humane, vulnerable, and normative on one hand, radically egocentric and exploratory on the other. It is an experimental fable of astonishing proportions and implications: to make a character who will stop at nothing. What can we make of this?

30 min
Don DeLillo—Decoder of American Frequencies

29: Don DeLillo—Decoder of American Frequencies

DeLillo's projects resemble those of Balzac, Dickens, and Zola: Draw a map of how we lived during the latter part of the 20th century in America. A major new talent in American writing, he presents places we have been but never seen, experiences we have had but never understood.

31 min

30: "White Noise"—Representing the Environment

DeLillo's comic masterpiece, "White Noise," makes visible to us our technological world run amok. Above all, he reconfigures the familiar story of the individual vs. the world, but in his rendition we actually see and hear the world. The environment speaks here, and what it says is worthy of note.

31 min
DeLillo and American Dread

31: DeLillo and American Dread

The central fable behind the narrative of "White Noise" is the oldest fable we know: fear of dying. DeLillo makes us understand that this fear animates our lives and our society in countless ways, ranging from Fascism to belief in science and miracle drugs. Death is the white noise that is the background for every existence.

31 min
Conclusion—Nobody's Home

32: Conclusion—Nobody's Home

We take stock of the accounts of American life we've examined, and we consider the role that art plays, personally and socially, in bringing us a heightened sense of our national past and our current endeavors. The central drama here, as throughout the century, is the interplay of Self and World, a dynamic that literature makes visible.

31 min