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The Western Literary Canon in Context

Explore how some of the most influential masterpieces of literature became part of the elite catalog of books known as the Western literary canon is this excellent course that covers thousands of years of literature.
The Western Literary Canon in Context is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 63.
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Rated 2 out of 5 by from So so to bad This course started off very interesting until Professor Bowers gets to Hamlet. Then his course falls apart. If the Professor doesn't know anything about Hamlet, fine skip it. But to title the Lecture "Hamlet" then insist on a ridiculous alternative reading of it's plot is too much. In addition the professor dawdles on minor details and never gives an explanation of WHY Shakespeare is a part of the Western Canon! I don't need Professor Bowers to repeat wikipedia information.
Date published: 2024-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Listened to all lectures on audio. Was fascinated by the lectures. It does give a brief synopsis of the books but the main thrust of the lectures is how this book wound up in the canon, and that is very interesting.
Date published: 2022-02-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid, Workmanlike Course Prof. Bowers delivers a steady, insightful series of lectures concerning the books that comprise the Western Literary Canon and how they came to be included. He approaches the books in the Canon chronologically, and his lectures frequently combine a synopsis of the book, extensive information about the author and his or her times, and the rationale for the book's inclusion in the Canon. Prof. Bowers has a workmanlike lecture style and obvious enthusiasm for his subject matter, and his voice is easy on the ear. I listened to the course and found that entirely satisfactory. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2021-11-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mixed bag I found this survey a mixed bag. Prof. Bowers seldom provided an overview of the work he addresses and often focused on rather obscure points (for example, in his treatment of Moby Dick) rather than the main themes. He often meanders through a multitude of other authors and titles when addressing a particular book, thus diluting the precious little time he has for each title. In fairness, he has many insights and the course does lead one to consider the entire concept of a literary canon. I think time would be better spent with more specialized courses.
Date published: 2021-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Watch It on Video I really liked this. I think he had an interesting take on why these books exist in the Western Literary Canon. I think this lecture series may be better on video than Audio. The nature of his lecturing lends itself to video. I am so pleased he mentioned bits of The English Patient. I think it is a wonderful book to mention as a title that could eventually land on the list of the Western Literary Canon....
Date published: 2021-01-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More Context than Canon And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Professor Bowers selects everything from the Bible and Gilgamesh to Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) in his broad sweep of the Western Canon. Along the way we are treated to quite a bit of history, some social culture, a bit of art, a bit more of philosophy, additional brief mentions of literature and literary figures not specifically covered and of course a fair amount of biographical material of the main writers, and their friends and family. About the only detail missing is Rushdie’s brief marriage to Padma Lakshmi of Top Chef fame. This broad coverage leaves precious little time to actually cover the works themselves. There is usually a brief summary of the work itself and sometimes some literary analysis as well, but often what is missing is a discussion as to why that work merits a place in the Canon. To be sure Dr. Bowers does set out criteria as to why one work gets in and another does not, but often those factors are less on the literary merits of the work in question, but other extraneous factors. This is particularly true in the last four lectures, where he almost seems to be saying that winning an award such as the Booker is a step that the writer has taken in order to be included in the Canon. Now it may well be that winning such awards may help a writer or work to be canonized, but winning a Nobel, for example, is somewhat outside of the writer’s purview. John Updike, I’m talking to you as the most recent example. This means that it really helps to be more or less familiar with most of these works in order to maximize the benefit from this course. Of course the emphasis given to the context in each case, helps those of us who have not read all of the selections presented (Boethius is one example for me). Further, the emphasis on the work and writer, as opposed to the context of the place and time varies from lecture to lecture. For me, this inconsistency is the biggest problem in the course. Just when I thought that I knew how the course was going to work, the next lecture took a different turn. Tighten up Professor Bowers. I took the course in audio and don’t think that I would have particularly benefited from a video version. I think that it is not unreasonable that the structure of the course assumes general familiarity with most of these works, but it probably would not work otherwise. Recommended if you have taken the pre-reqs.
Date published: 2020-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Context of the Western Literary Canon Having read some of the reviews, I purchased this course with a certain amount of curiosity. I think some of the negative reviews stem from expectations. This is not a course dealing primarily with the works found in the Western Literary Canon. It deals with the context of the canon, thus my review title which I think would be a better title for the course and would not give expectations that are not fulfilled. As for content, the view's of the author were very interesting, making connections that never occured to me. I don't always agree with his conclusions but they are thought provoking. Two angles I think he overworks, though are often present: 1 male rivalry; 2 an author "making all the right moves to be included in the literary canon. The latter is confused: an author getting rewards and recognition from others isn't the author "making the right move." The recognition that the literary canon is a work in progress and a process is helpful. So are all reviews and studies of that canon. If this is applied to this course it can provide many insights. In summary, I enjoyed the course very much and believe that my time with it was well worth it.
Date published: 2019-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Professor We are so enjoying both the content and how it is presented. The professor is so organized and knowledgeable that I am just 'drinking' it in. We have taken a lot of Great Courses history courses and this seems to help us understand history from another angle. Very pleased with our selection.
Date published: 2019-10-02
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Explore how some of the most influential masterpieces of literature became part of the elite catalog of books known as the Western literary canon. In The Western Literary Canon in Context, you journey from the ancient world to the 20th century and investigate the literary and historical significance of works including the Odyssey, Beowulf, Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and Ulysses. Award-winning Professor John M. Bowers reveals to you the amazing dialogue that occurs among authors, civilizations, generations, genres, and literary styles in the Western canon. Above all, this insightful course will reshape your thoughts on the development of Western literature.


John M. Bowers

A panoramic look at literature, 'The Western Literary Canon in Context' proves to you the central importance of these cultural milestones and reveals their timeless legacies.


University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. John M. Bowers is Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He holds a B.A. from Duke University, an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and an M.Phil. from the University of Oxford, where he was also a Rhodes Scholar. Before joining the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Professor Bowers taught at the University of Virginia, Hamilton College, the California Institute of Technology, and Princeton University. Professor Bowers has received numerous awards for his scholarship, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford, and a resident scholar at the Rockefeller Foundation's Study Center at Bellagio, Italy. Among his many teaching recognitions are a Nevada Regents' Teaching Award. He also was UNLV's nominee for the CASE Carnegie Professor of the Year Award in 2005 and 2006. A widely published scholar, Professor Bowers has written four books, including The Politics of Pearl: Court Poetry in the Age of Richard II and Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition; more than 30 articles and essays; and entries in the 2006 Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature.

The Bible and the Literary Canon

01: The Bible and the Literary Canon

This lecture introduces you to the various issues involved in the formation of the Western literary canon through an exploration of how the Bible exemplifies what it means for a book to be "Western", "literary", and "canonic."

34 min
The Bible as Literature

02: The Bible as Literature

Continue exploring the Bible's development - including its organization, authorship, styles, and arrangement. Discover how the Jewish and Christian scriptures helped define the future of literature.

32 min

03: "The Epic of Gilgamesh"—Western Literature?

Almost 5,000 years old, the story of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary epics in the Western canon. Investigate its dramatic origins and learn about the critical influence of ancient Eastern tales on the formation of Western literature.

32 min

04: Homer's "Odyssey" and the Seafaring Hero

In this lecture, interpret Homer's "Odyssey" as a depiction of Greek life and culture during the 8th century B.C. and see the crafty Odysseus as the grandfather of the Western literary - one who reflects the consciousness of an entire civilization.

31 min
The Context of Athenian Tragedy

05: The Context of Athenian Tragedy

How did Athenian tragedy help develop Athenian democracy? Delve into the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and see how tragedy forged and strengthened the connections between literature and national identity.

30 min
Herodotus versus Thucydides

06: Herodotus versus Thucydides

History books as we know them today began with Herodotus and Thucydides. In their respective "Histories and Peloponnesian," these first historians addressed the political and cultural relationship between East and West that you find refracted throughout the evolution of the Western literary canon.

32 min
Socrates and Plato—Writing and Reality

07: Socrates and Plato—Writing and Reality

Many Greek writers interpreted the trial of Socrates in 399 B.C., but Plato's "The Apology of Socrates" offers the most accurate depiction of the event. Approach this canonic text as a philosophical courtroom drama with significant parallels to Greek tragedy.

31 min

08: Aristotle's "Poetics"—How We Tell Stories

In his "Poetics", Aristotle pondered how one could understand poetry and use it to serve the greater good. Explore his views on representation (mimesis) and narrative logic, which proved influential in determining whether future works merited inclusion in the literary canon.

32 min

09: Virgil's "Aeneid" and the Epic of Empire

Commissioned by Emperor Augustus, Virgil's "Aeneid" glorified the Roman Empire by presenting its origin through epic poetry. Draw connections Commissioned by Emperor Augustus, Virgil's "Aeneid" glorified the Roman Empire by presenting its origin through epic poetry.

29 min
Love Interest-Ovid's

10: Love Interest-Ovid's "Metamorphoses"

Continuing the discussion of literary appropriation, this lecture looks at how Ovid's "Metamorphoses" answered Virgil's "Aeneid" and how Ovid's introduction of erotic love into the Western canon reverberates through subsequent canonic works.

32 min
St. Augustine Saves the Classics

11: St. Augustine Saves the Classics

"Confessions", through its analysis of Christian scriptures, paved the way for the manner in which many of us interpret literature today. Take a look at the background of St. Augustine and his canonic autobiography and learn how crucial textual analysis is to understanding the Western literary canon.

31 min
All Literature is Consolation-Boethius

12: All Literature is Consolation-Boethius

Is it possible for a work to fall out of the Western literary canon? Here, come to understand why Boethius's "Consolation of Philosophy," though no longer considered canonical, nevertheless introduced a profound thematic influence on subsequent canonic texts.

32 min

13: "Beowulf"—The Fortunate Survivor

The epic poem "Beowulf" (the sole manuscript of which was almost lost in a 1731 fire) has become a cornerstone of the Western literary canon - a role cemented by its numerous translations and cinematic adaptations.

32 min
King Arthur, Politics, and

14: King Arthur, Politics, and "Sir Gawain"

Find out how "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," with its message of chivalric virtue and its intricate composition, passes the "canonic test." This lecture unpacks each of the poem's parts and presents unique insights into the political climate in which it and other Arthurian legends developed.

32 min
Dante and the Canon of Christian Literature

15: Dante and the Canon of Christian Literature

A veritable encyclopedia of its literary ancestors, the "Divine Comedy" quickly became the model of the canonic text when it emerged in the early 14th century. Analyze the poem's role in its surrounding Christian culture and discover why Dante's epic is the single greatest literary masterpiece in the Western canon.

32 min
Boccaccio—Ancient Masters, Modern Rivals

16: Boccaccio—Ancient Masters, Modern Rivals

Although inspired by earlier canonic writers such as Ovid and Boethius, Boccaccio spent much of his literary career competing with the Florentine poets Dante and Petrarch. Investigate this rivalry as revealed through Boccaccio's "Decameron," the comedic stories of which are precursors to the novella.

31 min
Chaucer—The Father of English Literature

17: Chaucer—The Father of English Literature

Chaucer's signature collection of medieval tales expanded on Boccaccio's "Decameron" and became a compendium of medieval genres, from classical epics to sermon stories. See how the diversity of "The Canterbury Tales" helped establish a national English identity - and thus a national English literature.

31 min

18: "Man for All Seasons"—More and His "Utopia"

The invention of the printing press brought the canon of ancient texts to a wider readership. In this lecture, you explore how Sir Thomas More availed himself of this new technology when, influenced by the many works before him, he wrote "Utopia" and created the genre of utopian literature.

32 min

19: "Hamlet"—English Literature Goes Global

For all its veneer of Renaissance culture, the triple-revenge tragedy "Hamlet" is rooted in Viking culture. Discover how the genius of Shakespeare was carried on the waves of England's growing naval power, which helped the Western literary canon go global. If Shakespeare is considered the central figure of the Western canon, then "Hamlet" is one of his most important literary achievements.

32 min
Brave New Worlds—Shakespeare's

20: Brave New Worlds—Shakespeare's "The Tempest"

With British imperialism well underway, Shakespeare's "The Tempest" tackled many of the critical issues that arose from the exploration and colonization of the New World. Here, investigate these multifaceted issues and come to appreciate the powerful role of literature in the European imperialist mission.

32 min

21: Cervantes's "Don Quixote" and the Novel

The modern novel was born with "Don Quixote," a work shunned by the 17th-century literary establishment for its instant popularity. Survey the history of the chivalric romance and discover how critical "Don Quixote" was to subsequent novels that fell both inside and outside the Western literary canon.

31 min
The Rebel as Hero—Milton's

22: The Rebel as Hero—Milton's "Paradise Lost"

Another key point in the maturation of the Western canon was John Milton's "Paradise Lost," which injected classical and medieval themes with the revolutionary spirit of the author's age. Here, view Milton's epic as reflective of the death of one era and the birth of another - specifically through its innovative characterization of Satan.

32 min
Voice of an Age—Voltaire's

23: Voice of an Age—Voltaire's "Candide"

Out of more than 2,000 works, Voltaire's "Candide" stands as an improbable masterpiece in the Western literary canon. After looking at the author's long career, discover how "Candide" both assimilates and mocks earlier entries in the literary canon.

32 min

24: "Pride and Prejudice"—Women in the Canon

The Western canon's eventual embrace of Jane Austen marked the entrance of one of the first female writers into what had been a male-dominated catalog. Learn how the immense popularity of "Pride and Prejudice" and other novels helped Austen pave the way for future female canonic authors.

33 min
Nationalism and Culture in Goethe's

25: Nationalism and Culture in Goethe's "Faust"

Inspired by medieval myth, Goethe's "Faust" is an epic two-part drama about a man who sells his soul to the Devil for infinite human experience. In exploring both parts, you probe the relationship between canonic works and the dreams of nationalism they hope to influence.

31 min

26: Melville's "Moby-Dick" and Global Literature

"Moby-Dick" is a vast, multicultural novel in the American tradition. Underneath the novel's themes of commercialism and globalization, however, you find particular religious and sexual themes that conflicted with the cultural establishment of Melville's time.

32 min
Cult ClassicV

27: Cult ClassicV"The Charterhouse of Parma"

Although beloved by other novelists, "The Charterhouse of Parma" holds a slippery position in the Western literary canon with its potboiler subject matter and its cult status. Nevertheless, discover Stendhal's work to be an example of a political novel that accurately reflects the era in which it was written.

32 min
East Meets West in

28: East Meets West in "War and Peace"

What and where is happiness? It takes hundreds of characters and a wealth of events for Leo Tolstoy to answer this question in "War and Peace." Learn what makes this political novel a debatable member of the Western canon and another reflection of the porous boundaries between East and West.

32 min

29: Joyce's "Ulysses" and the Avant-Garde

Enter the modern era and its crisis of values with a look at "Ulysses." James Joyce's experimental styles and frank subject matter marked the Western literary canon's foray into difficult new territory.

30 min

30: "The Magic Mountain" and Modern Institutions

Continue examining Modernism in the Western literary canon by looking at "The Magic Mountain," a novel emblematic of the literary call to address the dilemmas of Europe after World War I. In Thomas Mann's case, the prominent dilemma is the physical and psychological institutionalization of the individual and of society.

31 min

31: "Mrs. Dalloway" and Post-War England

One of Virginia Woolf's most beloved works, "Mrs. Dalloway" confronts the fractured psyches of Londoners as they go about a day in their lives. Grasp how this novel, like many of its predecessors, reflects the emotional shell shock of a nation emerging from the trauma of war.

32 min
T. S. Eliot's Divine Comedy

32: T. S. Eliot's Divine Comedy

Modern poetry usually lies on the fringes of the Western literary canon, but the major poems of T. S. Eliot are important markers of its evolution. Here, untangle the complexities of works like "The Waste Land" and see how they illustrate the weight of the past on canonic writers.

32 min
Faulkner and the Great American Novel

33: Faulkner and the Great American Novel

Does the Great American Novel exist? Discover how Faulkner's classic work, "The Sound and the Fury," fuses Southern writing into the Western literary canon and challenges the possibility of a single, unified American literary tradition.

31 min
Willa Cather and Mosaics of Identity

34: Willa Cather and Mosaics of Identity

As the Western literary canon moved through the 20th century, it incorporated more minority subjects and themes into its ranks. Learn why "Death Comes for the Archbishop," which explores the diversity of New Mexico, is a telling example of the Western canon's own continued diversification.

32 min

35: Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" Literature?

J. R. R. Tolkien's blockbuster "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy has dominated contemporary culture - but does it merit canonic status? Explore the development of this series (with its roots in English myths and legends) and discover how this fantasy epic qualifies for membership in the Western literary canon.

31 min
Postcolonialism—The Empire Writes Back

36: Postcolonialism—The Empire Writes Back

Ever a work in progress, the Western literary canon continues to expand its boundaries and incorporate works by transnational authors. Chief among these are Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje, whose respective novels "Midnight's Children" and "The English Patient" are the subjects of this culminating lecture.

33 min