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Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America

Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America

Professor Peter Conn Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Course No.  2527
Course No.  2527
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

When a work of fiction or nonfiction captures the attention—and wallets—of American readers, it speaks volumes about the nation's cultural climate.

Best-selling books have played a critical role in influencing the tastes and purchasing habits of American readers for more than 100 years. Weekly best-seller lists appear in various national newspapers. Nationwide reading clubs help propel books (and authors) into mass popularity. Strategic marketing campaigns help embed the importance of a particular work in the American public's consciousness.

But there is more to America's great best-selling books than the sales figures they rake in. American bestsellers also offer us ways to appreciate and understand particular periods of American culture.

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When a work of fiction or nonfiction captures the attention—and wallets—of American readers, it speaks volumes about the nation's cultural climate.

Best-selling books have played a critical role in influencing the tastes and purchasing habits of American readers for more than 100 years. Weekly best-seller lists appear in various national newspapers. Nationwide reading clubs help propel books (and authors) into mass popularity. Strategic marketing campaigns help embed the importance of a particular work in the American public's consciousness.

But there is more to America's great best-selling books than the sales figures they rake in. American bestsellers also offer us ways to appreciate and understand particular periods of American culture.

The 24 lectures of Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America give you a pointed look at key best-selling works and their places within the greater fabric of American cultural history. Guided by award-winning Professor Peter Conn of the University of Pennsylvania, you explore representative bestsellers at various stages of American history, from the first book published in the English-speaking New World to the blockbuster authors who dominate the 21st-century publishing industry.

The result is an expert look at the evolution of American culture—its tastes, its hopes, its dreams—through the unique lens of the books that have captivated its readers at various points in American history.

What Bestsellers Reveal about America

Throughout America's storied history, thousands of books have claimed the term "bestseller" in one form or another. The 22 works selected for Great American Bestsellers, however, were chosen for the wealth of information they provide about both the concept of American bestsellers and the larger scope of American culture.

Every work in this course, from literary masterpieces (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) to enduring self-help books (How to Win Friends and Influence People), has had a crucial and unique impact on American society. Studying these representative works gives you a deeper understanding of how American literature can both mirror the events of its time and interact with—and in many instances impact—them.

Professor Conn shows you how the works in this course have performed many functions in American culture:

  • Shedding light on our nation's political history: Thomas Paine's widely read Common Sense helped chart America's course for independence in the months leading up to the Declaration of Independence. Pamphlets like Paine's were the preferred method of political debate in colonial America; they were cheaper to produce than books and lasted longer than posters and newspapers.
  • Intervening on behalf of change: Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin is virtually synonymous with efforts to end slavery in America. Harriet Beecher Stowe did not set out to write the "great American novel." Rather, she infused the work with her rage and despair at the ills of slavery. The immediate popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin put a human face on slavery and swayed public opinion in favor of its abolition.
  • Offering keen looks at America's social climate: Sinclair Lewis was part of an unofficial group of 20th-century American writers who revolted against the idea of small-town America as an idealized environment. The popularity of Lewis's satirical Main Street—in which a woman finds herself trapped in a small Minnesotan community—reflects the eagerness of many Americans to deflate the myth of the small town as a utopia.
  • Instigating—and enduring—controversy: Native Son's brutal violence and frank look at American racial tension drew the ire of many readers and critics, including author James Baldwin, who thought the character of Bigger Thomas nothing more than a vehicle for propaganda. Despite the debates the novel created, Native Son is still considered an iconic work of 20th-century American literature.

Professor Conn also notes that, despite the level of their literary merit, most of these bestsellers are exceptionally entertaining to read.

His lectures unpack the plot, themes, and critical issues of a particular American bestseller. He takes care to inject each lecture with a pointed analysis that proves each work's importance within the larger fabric of American culture—and frequently draws insightful connections between bestsellers from different genres and time periods in American history.

Encounter Moments in American Literary History

As you travel chronologically through this rich sampling of American bestsellers, you encounter moments in American literary history that speak to the rise and prominence of specific genres. Bestsellers, because of the rich variety of American reading habits, can encompass works that fall into time-tested categories like romances, historical epics, memoirs, war novels, and more.

In Great American Bestsellers, you come to understand how many of our nation's best-selling works helped make these genres important parts of the nation's reading life. For example, you discover

  • how Owen Wister's The Virginian, with its evocative depiction of life in the American West, sparked the popularity of the Western—a wholly American literary genre;
  • how The Maltese Falcon brought to the forefront of the American readership the detective story, originated by Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century; and
  • how the enormous success of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People reflects the important role of self-help literature in establishing and strengthening American values.

Professor Conn takes you inside works from the last few decades of American publishing, including Joseph Heller's Catch-22; Maxine Hong Kingston's experimental autobiography, The Woman Warrior; and David McCullough's John Adams. You also spend time exploring the latest stage in the evolution of American bestsellers, in which blockbuster authors work within well-established genres.

A Microcosm of American Cultural History

An established and respected author, lecturer, and literary consultant, Professor Conn is well versed in placing American literature within its larger social context. Among his many books are The Divided Mind: Ideology and Imagination in America; Literature in America; and Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, which was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography.

Throughout the course, Professor Conn exhibits a thorough and detailed knowledge of the American literary scene that is nothing short of captivating. His placement of a variety of American greatest writers—including Pearl S. Buck, Edith Wharton, Horatio Alger Jr., and John Steinbeck—within their larger historical and cultural contexts gives you new ways to examine their lives, their writing styles, and their best-selling works.

Professor Conn continually stresses the way in which all of these bestsellers—even those that aren't magnificent works of literature—have performed a useful role in telling us much about our nation's history. "Popular literature offers at least a part of the answer to the perennial question of American identity," he notes. "All of it has much to teach us."

From The Last of the Mohicans, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Good Earth to The Jungle, Gone with the Wind, and the latest blockbuster by John Grisham, Great American Bestsellers is your opportunity to see our nation's best-selling books as more than just popular forms of entertainment that have managed to make their authors lots of money.

They are, in fact, stunning microcosms of American cultural history.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Why Do Bestsellers Matter?
    What makes a book a "bestseller"? In this introductory lecture, explore some of the critical issues involved in a study of American bestsellers—including the effect of literary traditions such as book clubs and best-seller lists, and the insights bestsellers can provide about our nation's cultural history. x
  • 2
    The Bay Psalm Book
    The English-speaking New World's first bestseller, The Bay Psalm Book, was owned by perhaps a third of the households in the small Massachusetts Bay colony. Investigate the work's attempt to provide a literal version of the Psalms and its relationship with Puritan attitudes toward literary expression. x
  • 3
    Common Sense
    This lecture focuses on Thomas Paine's revolutionary Common Sense and how its engaging style reached a mass audience that included both the elite and the common individual. Less than a year after the pamphlet's publication, it was reprinted in at least 25 new editions and sold more than 500,000 copies. x
  • 4
    The Last of the Mohicans
    See how James Fenimore Cooper, America's first best-selling novelist, crafted the formula for subsequent adventure stories and explored serious U.S. themes—including the relationship between settlers and nature and the conflict between whites and Indians—in 1826's The Last of the Mohicans. x
  • 5
    Uncle Tom's Cabin
    More than 150 years after its publication, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin continues to provoke debate and argument. Explore the role this antislavery narrative—which sold 300,000 copies in its first year of print—played in reshaping American attitudes toward slavery. x
  • 6
    Ragged Dick
    Professor Conn looks at Horatio Alger Jr.'s "rags to riches" tale, Ragged Dick,, and its reflection of American ideas of self-improvement. He shows how Alger's best-selling novel presents a moral world of upward mobility, where hard work and merit lead to success. x
  • 7
    Little Women
    The quintessential girls' book of the 19th century, Little Women, serves as a testament to the shared aspirations that can guide a loving family life. Explore how the characters and plot of Louisa May Alcott's novel reflect the larger role of women in post–Civil War America. x
  • 8
    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Find out how Mark Twain's reputation as a cultural icon and the controversy surrounding the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, made it one of the best-selling novels of its generation. Published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn, displayed the versatility of American speech and changed the course of American literature. x
  • 9
    The Virginian
    Owen Wister's The Virginian , was the best-selling novel of 1902. More important, it ushered in the genre of the Western at the moment when the American frontier had closed. Examine how Wister's novel both celebrates and mourns the people, places, and themes of the American West. x
  • 10
    The House of Mirth
    Investigate Edith Wharton's masterful novel The House of Mirth, and the critical questions it raises about social status and gender in early 20th-century American society. An immediate bestseller upon its publication, The House of Mirth, established Wharton as a pointed critic of American high society. x
  • 11
    The Jungle
    Dedicated to "the workingmen of America," Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, was an international sensation that led to groundbreaking reforms in the American meatpacking industry. Explore how this 1906 novel exemplifies both the power of investigative journalism and the ideas of the American Socialist movement in the early 20th century. x
  • 12
    Main Street
    Professor Conn shows how Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, satirizes small-town America as a place of moral and intellectual deficiencies. Considered the best-selling novel of the period between 1900 and 1925 by Publisher's Weekly, Main Street, is a piercing, unsentimental look at American domestic life. x
  • 13
    The Maltese Falcon
    Delve into the popularity of detective fiction among the American readership in this look at The Maltese Falcon,, Dashiell Hammett's best-known novel featuring the memorable detective Sam Spade. In addition, trace the origins and conventions of the mystery genre back to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. x
  • 14
    The Good Earth
    The Good Earth, was the first work of fiction to be a best-selling American novel for two consecutive years. Discover how Pearl S. Buck's tale of Chinese farmers and their families shattered Asian stereotypes, illustrated the role of women in male-dominated societies, and provided Americans with an influential portrait of China. x
  • 15
    Gone with the Wind
    Why did Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, —a novel she described as "a simple yarn of fairly simple people"—achieve such unprecedented popularity? Study how her epic novel provides a unique window into the American South during the Civil War and question the work's controversial treatment of African Americans. x
  • 16
    How to Win Friends and Influence People
    Published the same year as Gone with the Wind, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, is a best-selling piece of success literature that asserts personal appeal as the key to success. Place the book in its historical context and consider various reasons for its long-lasting popularity. x
  • 17
    The Grapes of Wrath
    Consider John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as another example of a bestseller tightly linked with the social values of its time. The unforgettable chronicle of the Joad family as they suffer through the American Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath was among the five best-selling novels of the 1930s. x
  • 18
    Native Son
    The first novel by an African American to be named a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club®, Native Son remains an important work of 20th-century American literature. Explore the origins of Richard Wright's classic novel—as well as its controversial moral attitude that challenges consensual views of choice and justice. x
  • 19
    The Catcher in the Rye
    See how J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, through the unique narrative voice of its teenage protagonist, embodies the tone and issues of 1950s American culture. This 1951 novel can be read in the same vein as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: as a manifesto against the American status quo. x
  • 20
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is another American bestseller that uses the voice of a child as the central character to present piercing views of American society. Investigate how Harper Lee's beloved novel reflects both the development of Southern literature and the maturation of the modern civil rights movement. x
  • 21
    Catch-22
    Study Joseph Heller's influential war novel Catch-22 as a work that emphasizes the cheapness of human life in the face of mechanized destruction and absurd bureaucracy. Also, place this bestseller within the larger context of American war fiction. x
  • 22
    The Woman Warrior
    The first best-selling memoir by an Asian American, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior expanded the literary merit of the autobiography. In addition to looking at America's rich history of autobiographical writing, consider how The Woman Warrior's experimental style offered new avenues for this genre. x
  • 23
    John Adams
    Having sold more than three million copies by the end of 2007, John Adams is the best-selling biography in American literary history. Learn where David McCullough's work falls in the history of American biography and how it reignited interest in an often overlooked historical figure. x
  • 24
    Recent Bestsellers
    Focusing on John Grisham's legal thrillers, conclude the course with an examination of the dramatic transformations in the bestseller landscape over the last few decades. These transformations include the rise of brand-name authors like Danielle Steel and Stephen King and the ways that popular literature addresses new cultural concerns. x

Lecture Titles

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Peter Conn
Ph.D. Peter Conn
University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Peter Conn holds the Vartan Gregorian Chair in English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has a secondary appointment in the Graduate School of Education. Since 1993, he has served as a visiting professor at the University of Nanjing. Professor Conn earned his Ph.D. from Yale University. Professor Conn is the author of numerous works on American literature and culture, including The American 1930s: A Literary History; Literature in America; and Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has lent his expertise as a literary consultant on numerous television projects, including the Emmy Award winning series The American Short Story. In 2004, he served as principal literary advisor to Oprah's Book Club for The Good Earth. A John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, Professor Conn has directed National Endowment for the Humanities seminars for college and high-school teachers and was the recipient of an NEH Humanities Focus grant. Throughout his career, he has won numerous teaching awards, including the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious senior teaching prize, the Lindback Award.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 34 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by From an English Major: Enjoyable I bought this series as a set with Arnold Weinstein's Classics of American Literature. Listening to the courses together was refreshing. Conn's course is lighter than Weinstein's, which just means that you can listen to it in the car, on the treadmill, while walking, etc. I enjoyed Dr. Conn's commentary on the bestsellers and his appropriate focus on the social history that shaped these novels and how the novels also shaped that same history. Although he framed each book within its historical and social context, he refrained from heavy-handed moralizing and from deconstructing the texts through the lens of the nauseatingly guilt-ridden critical social theories that unfortunately comprise so much of current graduate study in English. Unlike other reviewers, I was not bothered by his selections; this was, after all, a course on best sellers, not necessarily great literature, although the two were often one in the same. The course was limited to 24 lectures, so some omissions will occur. That’s not a big deal to me. Dr. Conn is smarter and better informed than I, so he gets to make his selections without my advice, and that is fine by me. As an English major in college, I had read most of these works (but not all of them), and as a public school teacher, I had the wonderful opportunity of teaching both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; consequently, those were my two favorite lectures. In short, I thought Conn was organized, articulate, engaging, and well-informed. I recommend the course, and you don't need the video version. Sometimes, for a course like this, in which maps are not essential for comprehending the presentation, one might be better off getting the CDs; that way, fewer of the authors idiosyncrasies and mannerisms get revealed. Plus, some people are just way too picky. I enjoyed this course, and I think anyone else would too . . . unless, that is, you are hypercritical. March 5, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by Totally enjoyable experience Professor Conn provides critical literary and social commentary on this list of American bestsellers. He is an engaging lecturer and makes the 24 lectures fly by. Would love to view more courses from this professor! July 28, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by A good list. Forget the sociology. Audio download. Dr Conn's GREAT AMERICAN BESTSELLERS is a memorable overview of books often neglected in literary circles. He claims they help us better understand the Americans who bought them in such great numbers. I don't take this aspect very seriously. • His selection includes a religious work, a political tract and a self-help classic, all non-fiction works. Yes they all sold well, but mixing these in with fiction muddies his criteria for no good reason. He might as well have included "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" while he was at it. • He avoids novels that were huge sellers in their time if they might bore or offend mainstream readers today. Think of Horatio Alger's many rags-to-riches novels. Mark Twain had contempt for them. But do they not more accurately display the attitude of his contemporaries than "Huckleberry Finn"? Which bestsellers reflect best their time: those that pass away with their readers, or classics that transcend the ages? That being said, I really enjoyed Conn's presentation style. His voice is pleasant and clear. I never felt bored or weighed down by erudition for its own sake. The course guidebook was also excellent. This being an older TTC course, I don't think the DVD version would have added much more. Strongly recommended. July 20, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Thank you I have been stealing more months of pleasure from the Great Courses than I could possibly have paid for over the last 10-12 years. This course reminded me that I owed gratitude to a lot of professors, because of their excellence in one or more areas: choice of material reviewed, engaging presentation(s), providing exposure to several works that I had completely missed, and a chance to measure my own responses along-side his, etc. It is surely inappropriate here, but I am lazy and unlikely to write again so please let me thank several of the many truly excellent professors I have enjoyed thru Great Courses. These include E.Vandiver, M. Wysession, R. Bucholtz, G.W. Gallagher, Liulevicius, and R. Hazen. May 27, 2014
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