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The Western Literary Canon in Context

The Western Literary Canon in Context

Professor John M. Bowers, Ph.D.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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The Western Literary Canon in Context

Course No. 2120
Professor John M. Bowers, Ph.D.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
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Course No. 2120
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 900 maps and portraits. Maps take you deep inside both the content of the Western literary canon (such as a map of Dante's horrifying vision of hell) and its larger cultural context (such as the Elizabethan world of Shakespeare's time). Portraits include those of canonical giants like Chaucer, Austen, Melville, Joyce, and Tolkien. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

The Western literary canon has come to epitomize the official—and sometimes controversial—list of works that every educated person should know.

Among its more than 3,000 works are the Odyssey, Beowulf, Hamlet, and War and Peace—all of which have stood the test of time to become essential aspects of Western culture and our reading lives. Even if you haven't read some of them, you've undoubtedly heard of them—their mere titles are synonymous with greatness.

But what exactly is the Western literary canon? Why does it contain certain works and not others?

What is its history? What is its future?

Most important: What do particular works in the Western canon tell us about the development of literature and civilization?

You explore these and other thought-provoking questions in The Western Literary Canon in Context, a thorough investigation of more than 30 key works of the Western canon and the critical roles they played—and continue to play—in the development of Western literature. Over the course of 36 lectures, award-winning professor and author John M. Bowers of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas takes you from the formation of the Bible to the postcolonial literature of the late 20th century, revealing the exciting stories behind these classic works and their often surprising connections with one another.

It's an insightful approach that will reshape your thoughts about the evolution of literature and will open your eyes to the hidden dialogue among Western civilization's most cherished and influential authors.

Explore Key Influences

Great literature has always played a central role in Western civilization and our lives. It has given us creation myths, celebrated the glories of our past, shown us new ways to envision our future, helped us make sense of tragedy, inspired political movements, and instigated social change. The important role of books in our lives makes understanding canonic works all the more essential to understanding our culture.

The various entries in the Western literary canon also encompass a wide variety of subjects, genres, themes, and literary styles that set the standards that today's authors follow. We study Beowulf to get the best example of epic Old English poetry; we study Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to understand stream of consciousness as a narrative technique; and we study William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury to experience the complexity of the American South.

In addition, studying these works in their various political, religious, and cultural contexts helps you see and appreciate the lively dialogue between authors and works within the Western literary canon. As the poet (and member of the canon) T. S. Eliot wrote in a 1919 essay, "You cannot value [the artist] alone. You must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead."

The Western Literary Canon in Context is your opportunity to delve into hallmark works of the canon specifically chosen to exemplify its growth within a series of similar themes. You gain invaluable insights into the stories behind these masterpieces and some of the important elements involved in canon formation:

  • The influence of editors: Canon formation, you discover, is a critical part of the Bible's enduring legacy to Western literature. In the 4th century, Eusebius of Caesarea sorted out the body of Christian scriptures and established 20 books of the New Testament, acknowledging the Acts of the Apostles while rejecting the Gospel of St. Thomas, for instance. Later that century, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria issued a list of 27 New Testament books that would prevail as the standard—he even used the word "canonized."
  • The influence of culture: You see how some of the West's greatest cultures fostered the creation of key canonic works and how some works, in turn, became part of that culture's soul. Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey, helped cement the idea of a Greek hero in its characterization of the crafty warrior Odysseus, while Virgil's Aeneid, commissioned by the Roman emperor Augustus, celebrated the origins of the Roman Empire.
  • The influence of education: The best way to get into the canon is to get into the classroom, where we are first introduced to the Western canon's great works. While teaching at Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien pushed to get Beowulf on the required reading list—and even today the college classroom remains the typical place readers first encounter the poem.
  • The influence of controversy: Many of the Western canon's works were controversial upon their publication, drawing both the anger of religious and political establishments and the appreciation of literary critics. The "racy" elements of works like Ovid's Metamorphoses and James Joyce's Ulysses shocked contemporary readers but later were celebrated for their influence on Western storytelling techniques and the groundbreaking new ways they explored the human spirit.

Participate in a Riveting Literary Discussion

The Western Literary Canon in Context's approach to the masterpieces of Western literature focuses on the unique connections between each work and its predecessors.

You follow and participate in a riveting literary discussion, witnessing how, through their works, history's great writers have "talked" with one another across time. You come to understand that the books in the Western literary canon were not created in a vacuum but instead were shaped by the literary traditions that came before them. As Professor Bowers emphasizes, the Western literary canon generates itself backward.

For example:

  • When Virgil wrote the Aeneid, he echoed the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey to reflect the transition of power from the Greek to the Roman world and similarly the transition of culture from Greek literature to Latin poetry. In the Divine Comedy, Dante's Christian epic, Virgil would be portrayed as Dante's spiritual guide during his journey through Hell and Purgatory.
  • Voltaire's Candide contains numerous allusions and references to canonic authors and works. The Venetian nobleman Pococurante mocks authors like Homer and Milton when he gives Candide a tour of his library, while the hidden realm of El Dorado to which the title character flees bears a striking resemblance to the world in Sir Thomas More's Utopia.
  • Herodotus and Thucydides are considered the fathers of history, and their respective works The Histories and The Peloponnesian War provide us with the two major models for history writing. Herodotus sought to find the root causes to explain the military and national events of the Peloponnesian War, while Thucydides structured his history like an Athenian tragedy.
  • John Milton's epic religious poem, Paradise Lost, is a catalog of the canonic works that precede it, from Plato's The Apology of Socrates (in Satan's use of persuasion with rhetoric) to William Shakespeare's Hamlet (in Satan's motive of revenge against God).

As you progress through The Western Literary Canon in Context, from the ancient Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides to the multicultural themes of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, you see that as the cultural landscape changes, so, too, does our reading of these works.

Ponder the Western Canon's Future

The Western canon continues to broaden its definitions in the 20th century with stylistically unique works such as T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." As Western civilization expanded, its literature also expanded to encompass Eastern literary themes. What was once a canon dominated by Western themes and works started to become increasingly diverse.

Many of the works and authors you examine in the final lectures of The Western Literary Canon in Context have not been touched on in previous Teaching Company literature courses. While the canonic status of these contemporary works is still up for debate, Professor Bowers makes convincing arguments for the worth of these recent novels:

  • Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain
  • Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop
  • J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children

Analyzing these recent works gives you a wealth of ideas as to the possible future of the Western canon and offers you insights into works that may well be the canonic masterpieces of the next 100 years.

Take a Panoramic Look at Literature

With more than 30 years of experience teaching literature at a variety of universities, including Princeton University and the University of Virginia, Professor Bowers has a passion for literature that is contagious. The recipient of a Nevada Regents' Teaching Award, he draws rich connections between works as diverse as The Tempest, Dante's Divine Comedy, St. Augustine's Confessions, and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and makes you think about these icons of our literary tradition as an essential part of our world.

Novels, poems, plays, histories, and philosophical treatises: All of the masterpieces studied here provide, at their core, engaging literary experiences that have captivated readers for centuries. As you study the importance of the Western literary canon in works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Decameron, and The Charterhouse of Parma, you find yourself immersed in worlds of adventure, intrigue, and fantasy and exploring a range of human themes like romantic love, chivalric honor, and religious devotion.

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. The course is your opportunity to witness a rich literary dialogue and take an amazing journey through thousands of years of literary beauty, grace, and humanity. You'll never think about these classic works the same way again.

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36 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2008
  • 1
    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." x
  • 2
    The Bible as Literature
    Continue exploring the Bible's development—including its organization, authorship, styles, and arrangement—and discover how the Jewish and Christian scriptures helped define the future of literature. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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 hero—one who reflects the consciousness of an entire civilization. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    Herodotus versus Thucydides
    History books as we know them today began with Herodotus and Thucydides. In their respective Histories and Peloponnesian War, 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. x
  • 7
    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. x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. Draw connections between this work and Homer's earlier Greek epics and begin to recognize the process of literary appropriation that occurs throughout the Western literary canon.between this work and Homer's earlier Greek epics and begin to recognize the process of literary appropriation that occurs throughout the Western literary canon. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. In this lecture, learn to appreciate the poem's rich history—one as epic as its narrative scope. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. In the first of two lectures devoted to the Bard, chart the development of Hamlet and the role of Shakespeare's work in the Elizabethan world. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 27
    Cult Classic—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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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 and made the novel an infamous—but no less important—member of its ranks. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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John M. Bowers

About Your Professor

John M. Bowers, Ph.D.
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...
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