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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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4.5 out of 5
49 Reviews
81% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 2120
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  • 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
  • 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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Reviews

The Western Literary Canon in Context is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 49.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from You must be familiar with books he lectures about My background is science & medicine & I wanted to be at least familiar with the great books before I kicked the bucket. This course requires you to know, to have read, or at least be somewhat familiar with, his choice of the great books. I have read absolutely none of them, none. I think he is a great speaker & the historical notes he discusses about each book are excellent, but I learned nothing about what the book was actually about. I have looked at other courses offered by TGC on great literature & none seem to be about the books themselves.
Date published: 2016-01-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from OUTSTANDING!!! Everything and More that I was look The course 'The Western Literary Canon in Context' by Dr. Bowers was OUTSTANDING!!! The knowledge I gained from this course was well beyond expected. I have purchased over 75 courses and this is in the top 5! The professor continually bombards the listener with a broad perspective of the writer, time period written, other writers of similar genre, and on and on! I purchased the audio course which is perfect for this subject and the professors delivery, voice, and content were perfect. I was so stimulated by the professor's scenario's relative to the books I was on line purchasing them quickly! This is perfect listening for workouts, driving, or very early morning as I do. Nothing else I can say other than I am greatly enlightened thanks to Professor Bowers!!
Date published: 2015-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Fun and Highly Educational I may be biased in favor of this course and professor because it includes one of my favorite books, The Chaterhouse of Parma, but I hope I am not that shallow. I had great fun with this course and acquired several new books. The professor recommended Goethe: the Poet and the Age, and I rushed off to Alibris to buy it, discovering that it is in two fat volumes (no complaints; it's excellent). He pointed out the importance of cattle in human history and that the minority buddy tradition (think the Lone Ranger and Tonto) goes back to the Gilgamesh Epic. He noted that a Shakespeare play has been lost (oh, no!). He mocks the complaints about reading the work of "dead white European males" by talking about dwems and transitions to an Irish accent for his reading from Finnegan's Wake. There will be complaints that many of the recommended works are religious (the Bible, the Koran, Dante), but these are a critical element of the Western canon, so deal with it. He also recommends Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, which will rub other readers the wrong way, but it is a highly important book. He closes by dubbing current Americans and Europeans the people of the book; if you doubt it, look at how many of the Great Courses deal with books!
Date published: 2015-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Belongs in the Great Courses Canon John Bowers is an outstanding teacher and scholar. His course, The Western Literary Canon in Context, is tightly organized, clearly presented and rich with scholarly detail. Professor Bowers asks why certain literary works become canonical. He points to several key factors that explain how a book achieves that status: it must attract an elite readership, be translated into many languages, have scholars writing on it, and, most importantly, it must be lucky enough to survive the vagaries of time. Professor Bowers uses those themes, as well as the scholarship of Professors Harold Bloom and Eric Auerbach, to bind the lectures together so that the series is much more cohesive than a survey of literature usually is. I listened to this course twice, about seven years apart, and picked up on things I missed the first time. Like the books he discusses, Professor Bowers' lectures are rich enough to reward a return. One surprise is how frequently Professor Bowers talks about JRR Tolkien. Regarding Tolkien, Professor Bowers is on a mission, doing all he can to get Lord of the Rings into the canon. #Remember two factors that contribute to canonical status are elite readership and scholarly attention, both of which Professor Bowers can provide in some measure to his fellow Merton College medievalist.# The writers discussed in the closing lecture, contemporary authors Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje, are too new to be granted canonical status. As Professor Bowers says elsewhere, the canon is formed looking backward, and it is simply unknowable whether they will be read two or five hundred years from now. But those are quibbles. I strongly recommend this course.
Date published: 2015-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A thread weaving the Canon This course begins with the Bible as part of the Canon, and progresses through "The Epic of Gilgamesh," early Greek poems, epics and plays, Roman Latin writings, early Italian literature, early English literature, and on through the 19th and 20th centuries of Russian, German and American literature. The course ends with a discussion of Tolkein and Rushdie. There is a continuous thread that weaves the Canon in this course. The thread may change color, texture or diameter as it woven, but it solidifies the interdependence among authors and within the writings--despite independence of style and plot. Dr. Bowers has broad, extensive knowledge of his subject. He is able to present the lectures in a compelling way that caused me to want to begin the next lecture. When I completed the course, I wanted more. Several of the books I had read, but several more are on my purchase and reading list. I highly recommend this course for anyone who wants a broad, deep understanding of the Western Canon of literature. It will enable one the ability to better understand great literature, and to recognize the thread that runs through the Canon.
Date published: 2015-03-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Western Literary Canon Its interesting to see how and why the various books that we learn about in school were selected as important for us to read and know about.
Date published: 2015-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magisterial Analysis of the Western Canon This is a superb course provided one appreciates that it is an analysis of the way in which the "canon" (those texts deemed authoritative and definitive) of western literature was created and developed over the course history. It affords a beautifully balanced and nuanced "map" of the western literary treasures which are canonical. So this is not a straight line history of western literature and neither does it provide detailed explication of all or most of the key texts of any one author. Rather it explains how texts (usually over time, through translation into other languages and "sponsoring"by leading authors/critics or academics)come to be accepted as indispensible. The Professor has an engaging style and each lecture is lovely vignette covering various authors within the canon and commences with The Epic of Gilgamesh and ends with postcolonial literature. All genres are covered from the epic poem to novels and drama. Fascinating and completely absorbing and highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-01-18
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not Up To Teaching Company Standards Somehow listened to every lecture in spite of -- irritating voice inflections of professor -- constant repetition of material using such phrases as (remember, as we discussed before, you'll recall, etc. -- too much context and not enough text (or content) -- too much filler material including inappropriate personal anecdotes --a 36 lecture series that should have been 18 (at most) --first time I finished a TC course without feeling I learned a lot and enjoyed the process
Date published: 2014-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Frodo Lives! AUDIO: CDs I have long had an interest in lists of recommended authors and works, and have a favored spot on my bookshelves for Clifton Fadiman’s ‘The Lifetime Reading Plan’. I was, therefore, a sucker for this TC course, and I am very glad I bought it. I started the course not at the first lecture, but at the next to the last, “Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’—Literature?”, as it is one of my favorite books. I had never thought about the possibility of it being in a literary canon. Professor Bowers’ treatment of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ is excellent. Little did I know, however, that Tolkein and his works would be mentioned in what I estimate to be about half of the course’s lectures, nor that by listening to the course I would, through Professor Bowers’ connection, qualify as one of Tolkein’s “great-grandstudents” (page 7). That is all fine with me! Until I listened to this course, much of what I assumed about the Western Literary Canon turns out to be wrong or considerably off-base. Professor Bowers does a great job in explaining what the Canon is, how it got that way, and indicates the possible future directions it might take. This is an eye-opening and mind-expanding course on western literature. According to Professor Bowers, “Like the biblical canon, the Western canon only looks rational and well-organized when it shows up in textbooks…it is a messy mix of accident, politics, and, on occasion, the special pleading of other authors” (Course Guidebook, page 7), and is really a “’survivor’s list’, a work-in progress, always generated backward, expanding to welcome new members and dropping authors who no longer speak to the needs of current readers” (page 173) and “At the end of the 20th century, the Western Canon is enriched by writers whose origins lies in the East…the Western literary canon is hardly recognizable as ‘Western’ anymore—or even narrowly literary..” (page 3). Professor Bowers selects what he considers 35 canonical works based on his personal interests. Like the Western Literary Canon, however, Professor Bowers’ lectures sometimes seem messy and may disappoint (or even anger) those expecting neatly packaged presentations on the 35 listed works. The operative words in the course title are “in Context”, but this does not seem to come even close to what Professor Bowers does for the selected canonical works. Rather than providing a detailed summary and/or analysis of each, Professor Bowers most often only briefly treats the standard elements to explore the place of the work in the canon, the influences on it from earlier and contemporary works, relevant social, political and other factors, and the author’s impact on later writers who come to be accepted into the canon. In the process, Professor Bowers goes way beyond the 35 listed writers in mentioning scores of others (including even movie adaptations) by way of comparison and contrast. At times things can get almost out of hand. For instance, in the lecture on ‘Hamlet’ he brings in a good deal of Viking history and lore as background, and in the lecture on ‘Moby Dick and Global Literature’ Professor Bowers discusses at length William Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’, a 14th century work from the age of Chaucer. But, I have to admit, the messiness works, as Professor Bowers shows that despite “… all its veneer of Renaissance culture, [‘Hamlet’ is] a story rooted in Viking history” (page 87), and how the “…urge of the Langlandian hero, a shadowy character wandering the world and experiencing spiritual wonders, reemerges in Melville’s protagonist Ishmael, as well as in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman” (page 124). The course is chock full of such connections and insights, casting many familiar works in a new light. In discussing canon formation, Professor Bowers operates on the principle of progressive revelation. To be sure, there is a good discussion early on using the formation of the Biblical canon as a reference, but Professor Bowers hones in on specific criteria in the discussions of individual works, expertly using the context and content of the work to illustrate his points. For instance, Saint Augustine’s ability to interpret classic pagan texts as Christian illustrates an important aspect of the Western canon that works must “…have an intellectual challenge built into them, that require ‘exegesis’” (page 52) and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ demonstrates “…one requirement that we have not yet discussed: They have to be well-written, well-constructed, and display universal human values” (page 66). In making these judgments, he relies on a wide range of literary resources. For me, the most important are Eric Auerbach’s ‘Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature’ and Harold Bloom’s ‘The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages’. After listening to this course, it is now apparent to me that the canon is more a concept than a definitive list that everyone agrees on. After all, even though Professor Bowers makes much of including ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ in the canon, it is not included in Harold Bloom’s personal list of hundreds of canonical works. There is a lot of fun and interesting information in this course. Professor Bowers, for instance, highlights Bloom’s contention that development of the Western canon is attributable to male rivalry, and touches on it in many of the lectures. He also manages a fairly good Irish accent in reading from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; shows how well the movie ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ hews to the Arthurian story, attributable to the medievalist writer/director; credibly (but also, incredibly) connects The Charterhouse of Parma with War and Peace and Moby Dick; expounds on Shakespeare as an English export; and, toward the end of the course, treats extensively on matters of gender, homosexuality, race, and ethnicity. Professor Bowers’ presentation style is pleasant and enthusiastic, a joy to listen to, and the lecture content provides much to ponder and further pursue. Next on my reading list are the Auerbach and Bloom studies. As noted above, however, some may be put off by the apparent messiness of the content and the lack of significant summary information on the works treated. My advice is not to be put off by first impressions (as I nearly was). Stick with it and you will be surprised how it grows on you. I really do not think that the lack of detailed summaries should be a deal-breaker on this course. Professor Bowers provides enough detail to get at least a rough idea about each work and, if more information is needed, there is always Wikipedia. Finally, this is a course that is best appreciated by listening from beginning to end rather than dipping in here and there (though that works too, but not nearly as well). I am going to be revisiting this course frequently.
Date published: 2013-11-07
Rated 2 out of 5 by from With Respect, a Lonely Dissent I am sincerely glad that almost every other reviewer found this course to be wonderful, and I hope everyone else who takes it thinks so too. For me it was a near complete disappointment. The course ought to have been entitled "The Context of the Western Literary Canon," as it is the context which is the focus of the course; the time devoted to a discussion of the books themselves is miniscule. Instead, it is a compendium of literary trivia, with fact after unedifying fact presented about literary forebears and descendants, no matter how tenuous the connection with the work ostensibly being discussed. Much time is also spent stressing the obvious fact that which books make it into the canon depends to a great extent upon sheer luck and circumstance. Remarkably, almost nothing is said about what makes any of the works great literature. It would also have been very helpful if the good professor had followed Aristotle's advice, which he does reference, that a work ought to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead, the structure of the lectures is almost random, with little sense of where we are coming from or going. There are quite a number of errors, perhaps not surprising given the breadth of the material. Most are relatively minor, such as equating the Hellespont and the Bosporus (lecture 4), and giving Napoleon the French rather than the Italian version of his surname in the first sentence of "War and Peace" (lecture 27), this actually being a moderately important leitmotif of the novel. And the idea, even after a detailed argument, that Fortinbras is "the real hero of the play 'Hamlet'" seems just silly (lecture 19). I have two major objections, however. First, regarding Nietzsche: It is just wrong that Nietzsche wrote "The Will to Power" (lecture 25). That "book" is a tendentious selection of his unedited notes published posthumously by his anti-Semitic sister. And Nietzsche never "idealized" any war-like "primitive Germanic virtue" (lecture 30); Nietzsche was disgusted by Germanic culture. These sorts of gross misrepresentations have contributed greatly to the completely wrong-headed image of Nietzsche as some sort of proto-Nazi. In fact, Nietzsche hated anti-Semites and anti-Semitism with a passion, and would have loathed Hitler and everything he stood for. And second, the discussion of "Moby-Dick" goes out of its way to emphasize the stereotype that it is a "work more often listed as canonic than actually read," and gives little reason for actually reading it (lecture 26). For what it's worth, it is my choice for the greatest piece of writing in English, ever, and it is an astoundingly wonderful experience to read. (Hint: try it as an audio book first.) I should, at least, note the one bright spot for me: the discussion of Tolkien and "The Lord of the Rings (lecture 35) was both fun and fascinating. So - I humbly recognize that my negative impression of this course places me in a tiny minority. I don't expect, and wouldn't want, to have much influence on anyone's choice, given the many magnificent reviews. I only ask, if you do take it, to share your opinions here. Enjoy.
Date published: 2013-10-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not very Inspiring! In this series, Professor John Bowers endeavours to chronologically examine the major written works of Western culture. Regrettably, the very notion of literary canon is not discussed significantly. Professor Bowers seems fascinated with the Oxford catalogue without ever explaining why. He also strangely seems to confuse the concept with that of canonisation of saints by the Catholic Church. Sadly, his poorly structured presentations are more akin to talks than to actual lectures. No summary of the work discussed is systematically given. In some cases, he places emphasis on the context, in others on the author, yet in others on the piece itself. At times, he seems to be improvising from index cards in whatever order they happen to be ... what does not prevent him from making countless repetitions. On occasion, the comments made reflect an amazing naiveté. For instance, Professor Bowers takes at face value Voltaire’s assertion that 18th century England was a paradise of tolerance. Has he never heard of the plight of Irish Catholics, of Acadians deported because of their faith, of various religious groups fleeing to America, of the United States declaring independence from a tyrannical power? Overall, this series hardly entices the listener to reread known works or discover new ones. Thus, it misses its target and can hardly be recommended to anyone.
Date published: 2013-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My Favorite Course Dr. Bowers' course is distinctive in not only offering scholarly treatment of its material, but in providing so many valuable CONNECTIONS between long-ago texts and contemporary culture. Dr. Bowers' presentations are lucid, engaging, and overflow with both knowledge and love of the material. This is my favorite of the Great Courses yet (and I've listened to many).
Date published: 2013-09-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from OK Sometimes This course almost drove me mad. On the one hand I was glad to be introduced to writers I'd only heard of before, such as Boethius, and I enjoyed revisiting Dante. But on the other hand, in order to spend time with them I had to put up with Professor Bowers' inanities, such as his observation that all of Britain's early invaders came by sea (not unexpected, for an island); his determination to connect almost all great literature eventually to Tolkien; and, worst of all, his facile thematic connections between works. (For example, that Hamlet was influenced by Beowulf because one had a ghost and the other had a monster, and both creatures upset the populace.) I got to the point where I would only watch lectures on works I knew nothing about. If you buy this series, I suggest you do the same. If you watch him discuss a work you know well, you'll be tempted to throw things at the screen.
Date published: 2013-08-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant, Engrossing, Highly-Satisfying Professor Bowers brings it all together in this superb course, truly a wonderful gem in the Great Courses library! History, social standards & mores, literature, all weaved into a compelling series of talks ~~ I would have enjoyed an addition 12 or even more. These 36 fascinating lectures are delivered masterfully by an outstanding lecturer. It's a brilliant course which provides a strong education in the canon. Highest recommendation: this is a keeper, to hold on to and to re-watch.
Date published: 2013-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This sets the Standard for excellence. The Western Canon course is one of the best I have ever taken from the Teaching Company. It should be the standard for all future courses. I really appreciated that Bowers assumed there was a basic, 101 understanding of a great literature and he was able to put into context the place and value of the Canon claimants. He gave an excellent analysis for why each work is worthy of being considered foundational and gave great, in-depth references and anecdotes to back up his nominees. Thanks for showing respect to your students and I can't wait to hear the next Professor Bower Teaching Company offering.
Date published: 2013-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Remembrance of Things Past, but Fondly Remembered Perhaps the title of this course initially strikes you as a tad dry. I can assure you that the reality is just the opposite! It is like cautiously opening a plainly wrapped present, perhaps expecting litte, only to be dazzled by the fragrant and musical delights within. Nor is this a course about simply more 'DWEM's (dead, white, European males). Professor Bowers takes great care in showing how, over several thousand years, great works have been read, treasured, and sometimes even forgotten but then, many centuries later, happily rediscovered. In the course of his lectures -- which ended far too soon for my taste, so exceptional were the subject matter and ability of the professor in this course -- Dr. Bowers emphasizes how the list of canonical works (those which comprise the core literature of the West's experiences) is always being composed 'backwards.' That is, as new writers emerge through the centuries, both what they write about and those whom they cite as their most important predecessors, changes. This is a process both of exclusion -- some works or their authors are discarded, usually to be then almost forgotten -- while other works and genres come to be included. Overall, however, the canon keeps expanding because there are today more voices we yearn to hear that, in previous times, often went unheard. For example, we take women writers of many genres for granted today, when their appearance in the canon was very rare prior to the 19th century. Too, it was only in the 19th century that we began to take seriously the writings and speeches of African Americans, like the great Frederick Douglas. In the 20th century, particularly, we have seen a flowering of voices from many other cultures who either write in, or are translated into, English. So it is that in the last segment of this course Professor Bowers focuses on the great men and women writers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. One's enjoyment of this course is dependent only upon one having a love of reading. While it would help if one has also read many of the books referenced, it is not necessary, for each lecture's content -- while there is some discussion of the argument or plot line of specific works -- focuses on the author, his/her time and culture, and the processes by which the work came to be admired and preserved for future generations. A wonderful, exciting journey which leaves one grateful not only for all those who have written such glowing works, but also for all the largely unsung heroes who have copied, translated, edited, discovered, or saved them. You will likely enjoy this course very much.
Date published: 2012-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fulfilling &quite engaging DVD review. ©2008. Guidebook 208 pages. This is a riveting account of the Western Canon, one that’s inspiring, academic, thoughtful, and immensely rewarding, particularly if you’ve happened to have read a good deal of the literature under discussion. Without hesitation, I certainly regard this course as one of my favorites. For anyone who loves literature, this is a must-have course. It just covers so much ground you would never expect. Do keep in mind that this is not a typical survey course introducing 36 works included in the Western Canon. This is a course more about the Canon itself, how it developed over time, how books attained canonic status while others lost their grip and faded away into obscurity, etc. Often very little time is actually spent summarizing or analyzing the books themselves. Furthermore, it’s not even 36 individual novels or poems being spotlighted. Dr Bowers references hundreds of books in the Canon. What you come away with is a very intricate and detailed set of fingerprints stamped on all of these works and their authors. Just like a DNA sequence, you can trace the family tree, or Canon lineage, back 5,000+ years to the Epic of Gilgamesh--or even further when you consider common origin myths. Dr Bowers does a great job. He’s definitely gifted, well-versed on all of these topics, and genuinely excited to talk about these works. He balances literature, history, and biography and does so in just the right measure. All I can say is that it’s a crime he has only one TGC course. After watching this course, it is clear Dr Bowers must be brought back to develop a new course on Lord of the Rings. There’s another related TGC course, also highly recommended, that complements this one nicely: The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books (Voth).
Date published: 2012-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the absolute best selections! Dr. Bowers' tremendous ability to make these literary canonical works come to life is very refreshing. His lectures are concise, yet they provide a wide-ranging spectrum of knowledge only a true aficionado could portray. I was genuinely disappointed that he did not have more lectures as he is, in my opinion, a rare talent and a most outstanding teacher!
Date published: 2011-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I loved this course! This has been one of my favourites so far of the many Teaching CO courses I've bought. The lecturer truly "connected the dots" regarding the Western literary tradition, articulating connections thematic and structural I had never really noticed before or been made aware of before, despite many years of university/ graduate studies in literature. That said, this is not the course for someone seeking an introduction to the content of Western lit,as Prof Bowers assumes a familiarity with the texts he addresses in order to examine the connections and interactions among them. Because I was familiar with most, though not all, of his selections, I found his lectures engaging and stimulating; had I not been, I might have been frustrated by his assumptions. More literary summary is given in courses by such profs as Gene Voth (HIstory of Western Literary Tradition, etc); this course is more concerned with the ebb and flow of Western lit rather than with specific textual analysis. I will be listening to this one again.
Date published: 2011-09-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Perfect Course This is by far my favorite teaching company course so far. The course selects a succint Western canon of literature and discusses the choices from antiquity to relative modern in each lecture. I can't describe how much I learned and how much it has inspired me. I must read all the works discussed and reread those that I have read already! Each lecture is filled with erudite analysis, charming anecdote, and fascinating historical context. I learned many gems about JRR Tolkien, my favorite author of all, as Dr. Bower is Tolkien's great-grand student. Of course, naturally I do not agree with all of Dr. Bower's choices for the Western canon. I understand that 20 different professors would probably have 40 different lists, but I think some should be excluded on philosophic grounds. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh does not really fit into the Western canon because all of the other authors detailed were not aware of the epic when they wrote their works. So although it may have been indirectly influential, I believe this work should be outside the Western canon, in some middle-Eastern canon. But again, this course was sheer euphoria.
Date published: 2011-08-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Gem for Historians and Literary Critics, alike Professor John Bowers does a good overall job describing the historical context of the most important literary works in the Western World. Don’t expect summaries or any in-depth analysis of the great books. Instead, Professor Bowers describes the “behind the scenes” in a way that adds an understanding of the authors and motivations behind the books that we should already have read. I have never been much of a fiction reader, so this course has simply helped me learn a little about the great books and their context, so that, when I read history (my major interest), I can know something about how the famous authors and literary works have influences, or have been influenced by, the great historical events. I strongly recommend this course for literature and history buffs, alike.
Date published: 2011-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super! Just another terrific course from the Teaching Company! I listen to this (in toto several times and/or selectively as a reference for a particular work) and, with several other great courses, it is at the top of my course ratings. (I'm glad I'm not required to decide which I like best.) Subject matter is fascinating. Delivery is congenial and clear. As broad as it is, Prof. Bowers knows his subject as immense as it is. But, here is the amazing, intriguing, unusual, singular, aspect: He makes connections between the particular work and its literary antecedents, descendants, historical setting, etc. that are mind-expanding and give me (and most others, I'm sure) new ways of "seeing" the work under discussion. "Context" is the operative word here. His course has led me to re-read books with new eyes, ears, and mind and to read books for the first time. Professor Bowers knows his field and is a great guide through it. I hope he will consent to other courses. Although, I'm very content to return to this one again and again. Thanks Professor Bowers.
Date published: 2011-03-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very Strange I have purchased and listened to more than 150 Teaching Company courses. Obviously I am a big fan and found most of the courses to be wonderful. However, If this is not the worst course I have listened to, it is darned close. First of all there is no real discussion of any of the pieces of literature. When the Professor says 'in context' he means something wildly different than explaining the actual content or context of the work. Also, he presents an incredible amount of speculation and complete misinformation. Some of his lectures made me wonder whether he had ever read the book. And clearly, he has NEVER read The Sound And The Fury as virtually every statement made about the book was completely erroneous. Anyone who has read the book knows that there are four sections. He twice made the statement that there were only three. If your hope is to actually learn anything about the works being presented I would recommend one of the survey courses on World Literature or the world's great writers. This one was a waste.
Date published: 2011-02-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding framing of canon I'm making a concerted effort to educate myself on the Western canon, and I'm thrilled with how this course provided a unifying foundation and framework for that journey. Professor Bowers points out that we all form our own personal canons, and he is thoughtful on canon formation itself - a constant process of exclusion and inclusion, shaped by quality, relation to other works, and luck. In addition to context on each of his canonic authors, he makes copious connections with other authors (predecessors and descendants) as well as deep themes running throughout the canon. Professor Bowers is engaging, articulate and clear - I had no trouble watching at 2x speed and I was so rapt I would blitz through as many as six lectures back to back. Highest recommendation - I enjoyed it thoroughly and came away with a far more holistic understanding of Western literature (not to mention a long reading list I'm excited to tackle).
Date published: 2011-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Western Literary Canon in Context This was not only a wonderful review of literature from Gilgamesh to the present but also a lesson in history. It was fascinating to see how the "winners" in history had so much influence on what works gain canonical status. I especially enjoyed how the professor illustrated connections between seemingly dissimilar works. The professor has an easy, engaging style and I could not wait to get back in my car to listen to the next lecture. I am an avid Teaching Company fan and I place this course in my top five.
Date published: 2010-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course sent me back to the library What can I say about such a great course except that it inspired me to re-read some of the classics I read many years ago in school (no, I won't say how many years ago) and to read some I never got to. For example -- I never read "Moby Dick" and I had to after listening to this course. And having listened to this course first helped me understand what I was reading.
Date published: 2010-09-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Hold it-this course isn't so awesome I am sorry I don't find this course quite as good as the other reviewers. I understand he is trying to place literature in a context, however, I felt he didn't really talk adequately about the literature in question. So while it was sort of interesting to hear about Stanley trip up the Congo in the context of a discussion of the Tempest, I didn't find it that illuminating and would have preferred to hear more about how The Tempest maintains its' grip on people. I bought the course on the strength of the reviews and I am disappointed to find the other reviews so uncritical.
Date published: 2010-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Luck of the Draw Great presentation, informative and quite fascinating to understand how many works have come down to us through the ages - and that for some it has been sheer luck. It also makes me ponder about works that have been lost - what would they have taught us? Really liked the lecture on Tolkein. I am rating the course content 4 because it would have been great to have more lectures!
Date published: 2010-08-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Canonical sweep of Western lit Having listened to a number of TTC literature courses I was concerned that much of the material offered in this course might be repetitious but was swayed by the “in Context” addition in the title. Professor Bowers delivered admirably on this promise. As just one example of the breadth of the context Professor Bowers presents I would like to mention his discussion of Faust where he links Goethe’s work with, on the one hand, Longinus’ On the Sublime, on the other with Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire inspired by the poetry of Rilke. The unifying context that Professor Bowers sees between these works is the longing for the transcendent. Whether this is a “deep” insight or what another reviewer called “incidental” information, I’m not prepared to judge but seeing a classic like Faust, whose reading in school I did not consider FUN, in a wider context, was FUN for me (although perhaps age and the fact that no tests are forthcoming plays a role as well). This is an excellent and exciting course that may just inspire you, as it did me, to read some the works in Professor Bower's canon that you haven't read.
Date published: 2010-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More than I expected Often I disagree with other reviewers: not this time! This is just stone excellent. I hope Dr. Bowers does many more courses with the TCC. He approaches the Western Cannon as an evolving , almost living thing. That depends on: war, politics,luck patronage and many other factors. In this course you will learn not only about the works, but also a great deal of history, sociality, and artistic jealousy. In short this course proves that more is more. Don't miss.
Date published: 2010-05-16
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