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Classics of American Literature

Explore great American literature in this comprehensive course by an Ivy League Professor.
Classics of American Literature is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 74.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from enough already where do i start? This course is hardly on American classics; a lot is simply Prof Weinstein expressing his literary preferences, many of which would be a stretch to be called classics. The first few/several lectures s/h/b called American Philosophers; little literature; much pontificating, & very very boring. There's far too much on far too little. 2 & 3 lectures on 1 book is way overkill. As a direct consequence, so much that s/h/b included wasn't. One gets the overwhelming sense that the Prof simply likes to hear himself talk. One example of his incessant hyperbole is in lecture #55 where he compares as if equals Ben Franklin (a real truly accomplished person) with Gatsby (a fiction, who could be whatever the author wanted him to be). Finally, not a criticism of the Prof, but rather of the Teaching Co, every 12 (of 84) lectures we get a droning sales pitch.
Date published: 2024-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Additional descriptor! (So many American Classics) I am an avid Great Courser Am just getting started on this Series One of the pleasing things of this course is you can “pick and choose” Don’t need to follow order
Date published: 2022-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent. Thought provoking and well presented. Totally pleased with this purchase.
Date published: 2022-12-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Classics of American Literature I believe this course could benefit from captions. To me, the instructor was not always understandable. Variances in volume and enunciation seemed the chief problems.
Date published: 2022-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent series Professor Weinstein is a gifted literary critic. He approaches each work on multiple levels - its language, its imagery, its relationship to other literary works, its historical context. He directly addresses criticisms of the texts, but gently steers readers to appreciate them in their appropriate context. For a professor of comparative literature, Weinstein is disarmingly unpretentious, trying to express academic concepts in an understandable level. His analysis is certainly not superficial; he spends several lectures on most works which allows one to delve deeply into the texts. 84 lectures is a long slog and some listeners may want to take a break from the series for a couple of months to maintain their level of interest. Everyone will have their quibbles about what texts deserved less time, should have been omitted or should have been added. I have my own, but don’t think it’s worth posting in a review. One benefit of this course is to appreciate different perspectives - which Weinstein does superbly - and allow him to share his decades of scholarship with you.
Date published: 2022-04-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A Big Letdown Two features make this course immediately prepossessing as one begins listening to it. First, TTC/TGC has selected an imminently qualified instructor to present the material. Not only has Weinstein read every extant work by each of the authors presented, but he is also conversant in all the critical perspectives touching thereon (Marxist, feminist, post-modernist, what have you). Importantly, Weinstein is also extremely likeable--free from the abrasive arrogance associated with academics and showing little discernable political bias. Second, the course comprises 84 lectures (42 hours of lecture time), a length promising the listener an extremely thorough survey of this subject. These two features should be enough to guarantee the listener a 5-star experience. Sadly, so many weaknesses hobble this course that I can only give it 3 stars, and that’s being nice. Before writing my own critique, I read all the other critical reviews and found myself agreeing with five recurring complaints. Recurring complaint #1 is Weinstein’s obsession with semiotics (that is to say, the study of symbols in communication). Obviously, the whiteness of the whale and Hester Prynne’s scarlet “A” have meanings beyond the surface level, but Weinstein’s abnormal valuing of symbols over narrative made me want to grab his lapels and bellow, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!” Recurring complaint #2 is that Weinstein does not summarize the books or short stories that he covers. In all fairness, I think he may do this to avoid spoilers. And I very much enjoyed the lectures covering works that I had already read. But while listening to the lectures covering works that I had not yet read, I was simply lost. Weinstein’s modus operandi is to open a lecture with a brief introduction to the work, perhaps throwing in a jigger of biographical material, and then plunge into character analysis and semiotics. The overall effect is chaos. The course’s concluding lecture, a stream-of-consciousness sizzle reel of all the books covered in the course, is just insane. Recurring complaint #3 is Weinstein’s omission of authors like James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harper Lee, all the Puritan writers, and colonial revivalist writers like Jonathan Edwards. More on this anon. Recurring complaint #4 is Weinstein’s delivery. He intones every lecture in a raspy, unmodulated voice--this can readily fatigue one’s ears. The most grating byproduct of this unmodulated delivery is that one cannot tell where his quotation of a passage ends and where his commentary on it begins. It would help if he would do us the courtesy of bookending quotations with, “Quote/End quote.” Recurring complaint #5 is his non-standard pronunciation. Libido becomes “LIBB-uh-doe”; rudiments, “RUDD-uh-mints.” To these five complaints from other reviewers, I add one of my own; namely, Weinstein often gives more airtime to minor authors than to major ones. Herman Melville gets six lectures (composing 7.14% of the course) and Nathaniel Hawthorne gets five (composing 5.95% of the course). Those allotments seem appropriate given the colossal importance of these two writers. Yet Walt Whitman also gets five lectures. That’s right: poetaster Walt Whitman gets the same amount of space as the great Nathaniel Hawthorne. To quote John McEnroe, “You CANNOT be serious!” Just as maddeningly, Weinstein devotes five lectures to Emily Dickinson. While I like Dickinson and find her poems unique and interesting, five lectures are more airtime than Weinstein gives Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That book, arguably the most consequential novel in American history, gets only three lectures (3.57% of the course). However enchanting Dickinson’s poems may be, they have nowhere near the moment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These imbalances would not have been so galling had they not come at the expense of leaving no room in the course for other authors (see recurring complaint #3 above). I recommend that TTC/TGC retire Weinstein’s series, replacing it with a second edition that rectifies the first edition’s shortcomings.
Date published: 2020-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Guaranteed Enjoyment A wonderful series. I look forward with anticipation to each new lecture. It’s the best so far in the Literature Series.
Date published: 2020-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great as always Great course for lit review. I remember reading most of the authors discussed and the explanations are excellent
Date published: 2020-06-14
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Classic stories and poems of American literature are found in the pages of Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Twain, Whitman, Faulkner, and many others. Now, here is the opportunity to gain an extraordinary familiarity with each of these authors within a manageable amount of time, as well as review the great works you may already know.


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

Introduction to

01: Introduction to "Classics of American Literature"

What do we mean by a "classic?" And what makes these original and uncompromising works "American?"

34 min
Benjamin Franklin's

02: Benjamin Franklin's "Autobiography"—The First American Story

Franklin is one of the towering figures of America. His life is an example of self-making so potent it created what we now call the American Dream.

31 min
Washington Irving—The First American Storyteller

03: Washington Irving—The First American Storyteller

This no-longer-fashionable writer has much more than nostalgic value, revealing many of the growing pains and anxieties that accompanied the momentous shift from English colony to independent nation.

31 min
Ralph Waldo Emerson Yesterday—America's Coming of Age

04: Ralph Waldo Emerson Yesterday—America's Coming of Age

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the guiding spirit of American Romanticism, and his early works created a resounding "declaration of independence" from the Old World in culture, literature, and ethics.

30 min
Emerson Today—Architect of American Values

05: Emerson Today—Architect of American Values

Emerson's most famous work, "Self-Reliance," offered a bold and confident vision of the Self to which American values are still in debt - provided we remain alert to its radical implications.

30 min
Emerson Tomorrow—Deconstructing Culture and Self

06: Emerson Tomorrow—Deconstructing Culture and Self

Though Emerson is easily misconstrued as a facile optimist, his thinking went much deeper, vigorously confronting issues like alienation even as he envisioned a heartening ethic of freedom.

31 min
Henry David Thoreau—Countercultural Hero

07: Henry David Thoreau—Countercultural Hero

Long regarded as a shadow to Emerson, Thoreau has made his own reputation as dissenter and environmentalist, achieving in Walden a homespun pragmatism of great appeal in a society that has lost contact with the land.

31 min
Thoreau—Stylist and Humorist Extraordinaire

08: Thoreau—Stylist and Humorist Extraordinaire

Thoreau deserves far more serious accounting as a writer - a voice rich in pungent humor, biting satire, and splendid evocations of the natural world.

31 min

09: "Walden"—Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Thoreau transcends ideology as he fashions a breathtaking new language for portraying nature. In his paean to the surging life forces at Walden Pond, he offers us a new discourse of hope.

31 min
Edgar Allan Poe

10: Edgar Allan Poe

Poe's poetry is often dismissed, but his finest work is haunting in its suggestiveness. Even more certain is the impact of his famous theory of literature, which forever altered the course of European poetry.

31 min
Poe—Ghost Writer

11: Poe—Ghost Writer

Well before Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Poe was plumbing the depths of the divided self in haunting tales such as "William Wilson," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," and "The Fall of the House of Usher,"raising familiar phantoms that haunt all of us.

31 min
Poe's Legacy—The Self as

12: Poe's Legacy—The Self as "Haunted Palace"

An examination of three of Poe's most fully realized short stories ("The Black Cat," "The Tell-tale Heart,"and "The Pit and the Pendulum") shows how rich and bristling Poe's territory is.

32 min
Nathaniel Hawthorne and the American Past

13: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the American Past

Hawthorne was America's first great artist of the novel and short story, and in this lecture we see how his search for subject matter drew him into a past he saw as richer and more compelling than the young nation of his own time.

34 min

14: "The Scarlet Letter"—Puritan Romance

In telling this complex tale of Puritan crime and punishment, Hawthorne creates a fresh, riddling vision of fiction that defies our own efforts to arrive at a final interpretation.

32 min

15: Hawthorne's "A"—Interpretation and Semiosis

Hawthorne's "A" is the most famous and potent hieroglyph in American literature, with meanings that transcend the boundaries of the obvious "Adultery" to include "Able," "Angel," and, indeed, "Art."

31 min

16: "The Scarlet Letter"—Political Tract or Psychological Study?

The traditional reading of "The Scarlet Letter" is a psychological one. But this remarkable novel also reflected many of the political conflicts of the mid-19th-century America in which it was written, including the women's movement, the threat of anarchy and revolution, and the nature of dissent.

32 min
Hawthorne Our Contemporary

17: Hawthorne Our Contemporary

Hawthorne is the first American writer to brood on the idea of the past (both personal and societal) and to explore morality without flinching. He heralds the great dark novels of Faulkner and other Southern writers, as well as the New England literature of Cheever, Lowell, and Gaddis.

31 min
Herman Melville and the Making of

18: Herman Melville and the Making of "Moby-Dick"

Melville had already built a successful reputation as a true-life adventure writer by the time he began work on "Moby-Dick."

31 min
The Biggest Fish Story of Them All

19: The Biggest Fish Story of Them All

Although whaling is covered in extraordinary detail, Melville's ultimate topic is greatness itself. His depictions of whales at sea are springboards for profound meditations on the nature and whereabouts of truth.

31 min
Ahab and the White Whale

20: Ahab and the White Whale

In Ahab, Melville creates and indigenous American tragic hero—a mad imperial figure whose quest becomes a map of the human enterprise, the heights and depths of which Melville charts in unforgettable ways.

31 min

21: "Moby-Dick"—Tragedy of Perspective

A limited point of view is the fate of all people, and one of Melville's greatest achievements is to render Ahab's monomaniacal quest from the perspectives of several participants, giving readers a dramatic perspective.

31 min
Melville's “Benito Cereno”—American (Mis)adventure at Sea

22: Melville's “Benito Cereno”—American (Mis)adventure at Sea

One of Melville's most brilliant works is the largely unread short story, "Benito Cereno." In this strange and complex account of an encounter with a mysterious slave ship, Melville's choice of narrator allows him to make a striking and original contribution to the contemporary debate over race and colonialism.

31 min

23: "Benito Cereno”—Theater of Power or Power of Theater?

The true meaning of the strange events of "Benito Cereno" is withheld from the narrator—and thus the reader—until the very end. This technique enables Melville's meditation on power to make its most telling point about the nature of "vision" as a cultural product.

31 min
Walt Whitman—The American Bard Appears

24: Walt Whitman—The American Bard Appears

Emerson, spokesperson for mid-19th-century literary America, had asked when America would have the poet it deserved. "Leaves of Grass," published in 1855, is the dramatic answer, in which Whitman celebrates the political, moral, and verbal grandeur of democratic America.

32 min
Whitman—Poet of the Body

25: Whitman—Poet of the Body

Whitman's powerful portrayal of the human body struck a deep and often offensive note in his 19th-century audience. Reversing body/spirit dualism and its religious corollary of a superior spirit, he insisted instead on the sanctity of the body and its natural passions.

34 min
Whitman—Poet of the City

26: Whitman—Poet of the City

Whitman ranks as one of the first poets to plumb the changes wrought by the modern city. In one of his greatest poems, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he bears witness to the city as an unparalleled locus of energy, encounter, and attachment.

31 min
Whitman—Poet of Death

27: Whitman—Poet of Death

Although Whitman is properly seen as a vital, even titanic, force whose poems celebrate life in all its varieties, a deep intimacy with death runs throughout his work. As life's truth and art's source, death emerges as the bedrock of his poetry.

31 min
The Whitman Legacy

28: The Whitman Legacy

This lecture examines the signature features of Whitman's art: the humor, elusiveness, open-endedness, and the genial persona as intimate and guide that endows his work with such an intense, personal flavor.

31 min

29: "Uncle Tom's Cabin"—The Unread Classic

Harriet Beecher Stowe published several novels, but she is known only for this one, which captured the attention of the entire world in 1852 but has since virtually vanished from the landscape. Her book changed the course of American history, but many readers have trouble with it, and we examine why.

31 min
Stowe's Representation of Slavery

30: Stowe's Representation of Slavery

Stowe approaches the outrage of slavery and its assault on the family from the viewpoint of a mother who has herself lost children, and we see how the book's authority is inseparable from its family theme.

31 min
Freedom and Art in

31: Freedom and Art in "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

The power of Stowe's classic depiction of slavery derives from the alternative vision she proposes at every step: an absolute freedom whose spirit shimmers throughout the book, which emerges as a far greater tribute to art than we have thought.

31 min
Emily Dickinson—In and Out of Nature

32: Emily Dickinson—In and Out of Nature

Dickinson's poems are either breathtaking in their immediacy, with the natural world delivered fresh and vital for our inspection—or inferential to the point of madness. This lecture explores how Dickinson's poems often put our own deciphering powers to the test.

31 min
Dickinson's Poetry—Language and Consciousness

33: Dickinson's Poetry—Language and Consciousness

We see how Dickinson's poetry helps us realize that the project of great literature is frequently one of unnaming—cleansing the world from its customary labels in order to invite fresh perceptions.

31 min
Dickinson—Devotee of Death

34: Dickinson—Devotee of Death

Dickinson is perhaps best known for her startling poems about death, including her own death, and we see the extraordinary range that this unsettling subject provides her.

31 min

35: Dickinson—"Amherst's Madame de Sade"

Dickinson was far from the simple figure she cunningly constructed for posterity—the virginal, demure, wrenlike observer of the world around her—and we enjoy the tonic provided by her harsh language and recurring bouts of murder and mayhem that punctuate so many of her poems.

31 min
Dickinson's Legacy

36: Dickinson's Legacy

We examine a legacy that is clear in many regards, including her role as a "oetic founding mother" among feminists in particular and women in general, and her status as the great metaphysical poet of the 19th century - with a sense of wit and brilliance that have no counterpart in American literature.

31 min

37: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"—American Paradise Regained

"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" was Mark Twain's first foray into children's literature, but its enduring hold on the American imagination is testimony to his already keen, even shrewd, sense of American boyhood and innocence.

34 min

38: "Huckleberry Finn"—The Banned Classic

Ever since its appearance, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has offended, with its views on race and language hotly disputed. But its significance as a central text about the journey to freedom is indisputable.

31 min

39: "Huckleberry Finn"—A Child's Voice, a Child's Vision

We see the truth in Hemingway's claim that all modern American literature comes from this single volume. We come to understand Twain's achievement in examining slavery through the eyes of a child who discovers that his conscience, shaped by the society in which he lives, is at war with his heart.

31 min
Huckleberry Finn, American Orphan

40: Huckleberry Finn, American Orphan

We learn that the central truth of this great novel is Huck's orphanhood, and now Jim's symbolic role as Huck's father is only achievable when all of the obstacles of race and class have been surmounted.

31 min
Mark Twain's

41: Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson"—Black and White Charade

"Pudd'nhead Wilson" is Twain's most experimental, even surrealistic, novel, and it deserves much fuller recognition as his boldest account of the conventions of race and class—a meditation on the kinds of freedom that are available to us, in art if not in life.

31 min
Henry James and the Novel of Perception

42: Henry James and the Novel of Perception

Henry James is not easy for modern readers. His writing displays a complexity not easily negotiated by those accustomed to the work of Hemingway and the Minimalists. A look at "The Ambassadors" will allow us to gauge both the Jamesian manner and the crucial role that imagination plays in his fictional world.

31 min

43: "The Turn of the Screw"—Do You Believe in Ghosts?

"The Turn of the Screw" is a candidate for the greatest story in literature, even though it has none of the Gothic features so familiar to us. Its themes of innocence and guilt, swirling around two children, have no less power to terrify us than any of Poe's or Hawthorne's darkest stories.

31 min
Turning the Screw of Interpretation

44: Turning the Screw of Interpretation

There are two totally opposed readings of James's famous ghost story—one that denies it has any ghosts at all—and we see how the story reveals the moral stakes of interpretation, and how lethal that interpretation can be.

32 min
Stephen Crane and the Literature of War

45: Stephen Crane and the Literature of War

"The Red Badge of Courage," written by a young man who had never been in battle, took the world by storm and gave birth to a new kind of American writing about war: an unflinching, quasi-journalistic vision that showed a new image of the human combatant.

31 min

46: "The Red Badge of Courage"—Brave New World

Crane's central strategy is to juxtapose the inner private world of a soldier in battle with the external world around him, and we see how he invents a new kind of expressionistic prose to accomplish this.

31 min
Stephen Crane—Scientist of Human Behavior

47: Stephen Crane—Scientist of Human Behavior

Many argue that Crane's greatest accomplishments lie in the realm of the short story. We take a close look at two of his most famous forays in this genre: "The Open Boat" and "The Blue Hotel."

32 min
Charlotte Perkins Gilman—War Against Patriarchy

48: Charlotte Perkins Gilman—War Against Patriarchy

Gilman's work is filled with tribulations of family, especially the impossible demands placed on women. Her fateful encounter with America's ruling physician of hysteria, S. Weir Mitchell, ultimately produced this harrowing account of a woman essentially going mad by a doctor's orders.

29 min

49: "The Yellow Wallpaper"—Descent into Hell or Free at Last?

This 20-page story is one of the most unforgettable pieces of prose in all of American literature, lodging itself in the mind in a Kafkaesque manner and leaving readers with a most difficult task of final assessment.

35 min
Robert Frost and the Spirit of New England

50: Robert Frost and the Spirit of New England

The reputation of Robert Frost is by no means a settled matter, and there are many scholars who still insist on denying all seriousness in his work. But a careful look at some of his most well-known poems shows us that they are considerably more complex and less settled than is usually thought.

31 min
Robert Frost—

51: Robert Frost—"At Home in the Metaphor"

Every poet has a stake in the significance of metaphor, and we learn about the debate over whether this vital tool too often substitutes a poet's own projections for "hard facts." Frost was critically alert to this problem, and some of his most interesting poems show us that they are considerably more complex and less settled than is usually thought.

31 min
Robert Frost and the Fruits of the Earth

52: Robert Frost and the Fruits of the Earth

Although countless poets have waxed lyrical about Nature and the "good life," Frost remains one of the few who have written about work. We look at some of his most unforgettable poems about labor in all of its guises.

31 min
T.S. Eliot—Unloved Modern Classic

53: T.S. Eliot—Unloved Modern Classic

Eliot's importance as both poet and critic was recognized almost as soon as he burst on the scene, and this lecture begins our examination of a career that ultimately defined him as the arbiter for English-speaking poetry in the first half of the 20th century.

32 min
T.S. Eliot—

54: T.S. Eliot—"The Waste Land" and Beyond

No poem challenges us like "The Waste Land," which demands that we domesticate its fierce strangeness and confront its formidable array of artifice and allusion. We journey into the heart of this monumental poem before concluding with a brief look at Eliot's haunting final work, "The Four Quartets."

32 min
F. Scott Fitzgerald's

55: F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"—American Romance

F. Scott Fitzgerald is our great chronicler of the Jazz Age, and this distinguished masterpiece shows why. But the book is more than mere chronicle. As we look at the writer understood to be the "lyric poet of Capitalism," we begin to understand the burning desire that drives Gatsby.

31 min

56: "The Great Gatsby"—A Story of Lost Illusions?

We take a closer look at "Gatsby's" flawed characters and the dreams they pursue, and we grapple with the same questions that faced their author: Is the dream itself flawed? And can desire (even the superhuman desire that has animated Gatsby) be sustained once it is gratified?

31 min
Fitzgerald's Triumph—Writing the American Dream

57: Fitzgerald's Triumph—Writing the American Dream

We learn that Fitzgerald saw the story of Gatsby as a tale of how dreams give glory to life, whether they are true or not, and that the dream itself is incorruptible, no matter how the dreamer and the woman he loved might be discredited.

32 min
Ernest Hemingway's

58: Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"—Novel of the Lost Generation

As the 20th century ends, Hemingway's reputation in the American canon is under fire, even though his status as the most influential American prose-writer of the century is without dispute. We begin our examination of how this irony came to be with a look at the novel often regarded as Hemingway's best.

31 min

59: "The Sun Also Rises"—Spiritual Quest

On the surface, this novel (which first introduced America to the Paris of the 1920s) seems like pure realism. We soon realize that the plight of Hemingway's Americans in Europe has deeply symbolic overtones.

31 min
Ernest Hemingway—Wordsmith

60: Ernest Hemingway—Wordsmith

More than any other writer, Hemingway remade the American literary language; much of the verbiage and rhetoric of "English" has vanished from American prose because of his efforts. Yet nothing is as simple as it appears, and this lecture about the way Hemingway used words may change the way you view this seminal writer.

31 min

61: Hemingway's "The Garden of Eden"—Female Desire Unleashed

In this posthumously published and fiercely edited version of a 1500-page manuscript that Hemingway worked on for more than a decade, we finally see the explosive sexual issues that lurked behind the scenes of his other work, as well as his first fully developed female character.

35 min

62: "The Garden of Eden"—Combat Zone

We conclude our look at Hemingway with the frankest account we will ever have from him about the relationship between the sexes.

31 min
William Faulkner's

63: William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury"—The Idiot's Tale

Beginning with an overview of William Faulkner's career, this lecture introduces the masterpiece that marks his reinvention of the novel form: the account of a Southern family's decline that opens with the most famous piece of American prose of the 20th century—the idiot's monologue.

31 min

64: "The Sound and the Fury"—Failed Rites of Passage

We see how Faulkner enlists stream-of-consciousness style to explore the gathering drama of a young man's agonized sense of failure—giving us a prose that duplicates in print the rich, chorus-like nature of human thought.

31 min

65: "The Sound and the Fury"—Signifying Nothing?

In the final part of the novel, Faulkner narrates in the third person, thereby changing entirely what the reader sees and bringing issues of community into this drama of a sick and dying nuclear family.

31 min

66: "Absalom, Absalom!"—Civil War Epic

Published in the same year as "Gone With the Wind," Faulkner's most complex novel collapses all of the narrative distinctions of Margaret Mitchell's linear plot, crafting a story that moves forward, backward, and sideways in giving us a profound view of the unhealed wounds of the Civil War.

31 min

67: "Absalom, Absalom!"—The Language of Love

This lecture will explain the reasons behind Faulkner's intentionally disjointed prose and the remarkable impact it allowed him to make.

31 min

68: "Absalom, Absalom!"—The Overpass to Love

In this final lecture on Faulkner, we see how the two youthful narrators are made to epitomize the novel's deepest concerns: how we process the past and what we bring with us when we enter the lives of other people and other times. Their joint narrative heroics constitute Faulkner's noblest utterance about what literature can predict.

32 min

69: "The Grapes of Wrath"—American Saga

Published in 1939, this documentary-like tale of people uprooted from their land by the Great Depression created a literary sensation, selling 430,000 copies in its first year. We see how Steinbeck's novel bears witness to the destruction of a way of life (a covenant between man and the land) that cannot survive the displacements of the industrial age.

31 min
John Steinbeck—Poet of the Little Man

70: John Steinbeck—Poet of the Little Man

Although he has been maligned as a superficial writer who deals in stereotypes rather than credible characters, Steinbeck's prose has a remarkable bite and pungency that reveals the collective voice of a nation and the forces that govern it.

30 min

71: "The Grapes of Wrath"—Reconceiving Self and Family

Will the revenge implied by the title actually come? Does justice prevail? Is there a reward for the innocent? Wisely, Steinbeck refrains from answering, but in the novel's controversial conclusion, he reconceives the bonds of family with a redemptive vision.

31 min

72: "Invisible Man"—Black "Bildungsroman"

Ralph Ellison's novel comes at a time when Richard Wright's "Native Son" seemed to epitomize the goals of much black writing: a tragic, brilliant account of conflict depicted as social realism. We see how Ellison creates an entirely new idiom commensurate with the rich, multileveled story he wants to tell.

31 min

73: "Invisible Man"—Reconceiving History and Race

Much of the drama of this famous work (often regarded as a candidate for "novel of the century") is rooted in the protagonist's search for authority. We see how the events of his life repeatedly re-emphasize his "invisibility," and how each bout of futility and exploitation is contrasted with moments of passion and self-discovery.

34 min

74: "Invisible Man"—“What Did I Do, to Be So Black and Blue?”

The patron saint of Ellison's book and of his artistic vision is Louis Armstrong, and we see how Armstrong's music—composed of bits and pieces of black history, improvisational rather than rigid, adept at recycling and "signifying"—announces the new aesthetic that reigns in this novel.

32 min
Eugene O'Neill—Great God of American Theater

75: Eugene O'Neill—Great God of American Theater

Though O'Neill's language can seem flat on paper, his plays succeed magnificently on stage, where he rules supreme as America's premier dramatist, single-handed creator of an entire repertory of plays and theatrical techniques. We examine his roots and see how key events of his life are central to many of his plays.

31 min

76: "Long Day's Journey Into Night"—There's No Place Like Home

O'Neill's genius lies in his theatrical vision, his ability to invest the simplest everyday events into shimmering symbols, resonant with feeling and history. By the end of this story of accusation and revelation, every member of a tortured family has bared his or her soul, and we know the full power of the theater.

31 min
Tennessee Williams—Managing Libido

77: Tennessee Williams—Managing Libido

This lecture examines the great themes of Williams's work and takes a close look at "The Glass Menagerie," the only major Williams play to be untroubled by sexuality, before introducing his masterpiece, "A Streetcar Named Desire."

31 min

78: "A Streetcar Named Desire"—The Death of Romance

Two of Williams's most memorable characters negotiate a tense battle over the place of beauty and poetry in a harsh and pragmatic culture, while beauty itself makes a pathetic stand against the passage of time.

31 min

79: "Death of a Salesman"—Death of an Ethos?

The passage of time is also a character in Arthur Miller's most memorable play, as the "national conscience" of American theater tells the story of a salesman facing the agonizing realization that he is becoming obsolete in his own lifetime.

31 min

80: "Death of a Salesman"—Tragedy of the American Dream

Miller's play becomes a tragedy of the Modern Age, questioning our notions of defining, achieving and sustaining success in a world that breeds disillusion.

31 min
Toni Morrison's

81: Toni Morrison's "Beloved"—Dismembering and Remembering

Toni Morrison has become the pre-eminent American novelist of our time, and in this first of three lectures devoted to her most acclaimed work, we see her original approach to exploring the profound wound that slavery has left in the black (and the national) psyche.

32 min

82: "Beloved"—A Story of “Thick Love”

Though we know from the outset that Morrison's novel deals with a hidden crime, the full horror and resonance of that crime are slow to unfold. When they do, however, we are immersed in a monstrous tale, before arriving at Morrison's astonishing version of a people's origins.

32 min

83: "Beloved"—Morrison's Writing of the Body

Morrison shows us that a literature of the body is both possible and long overdue, producing a work whose power comes from its insistent translation of slavery into physical terms—a crime committed against the body and against the tenderness and compassion that any human being should be able to share.

31 min
Conclusion to

84: Conclusion to "Classics of American Literature"

In concluding this course we learn that literature, more than anything else, is a privileged access to the lessons of the past, a past we continue to live in, even as we turn our attention to the future.

31 min