20th-Century American Fiction

Course No. 230
Professor Arnold Weinstein, Ph.D.
Brown University
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Course No. 230
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Course Overview

Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Faulkner. No first names are needed. These giants of literature are immediately recognizable to anyone who loves to read fiction and even to many who don't. Now, thanks to this course from Brown University's Professor Arnold Weinstein, you can develop fresh insight into these and eight other great American authors of the 20th century. Professor Weinstein sheds light not only on the sheer magnificence of these writers' literary achievements but explores their uniquely American character as well. Despite their remarkable variety, each represents an outlook and a body of work that could only have emerged in the United States.

Freedom and Speech

The aim of this course is to analyze and appreciate some of the major works of fiction produced in this country over the past century, using as a focal point the idea of "freedom of speech." The focus on freedom of speech is appropriate for many reasons, particularly:

    1. These texts often invoke the fundamental political freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and many of them take the liberty of articulating the painful ideological conflicts that have punctuated our modern history: war, racism, poverty, drugs, sexism, and the like.
    2. "Freedom of speech" also spells out the key thesis to be presented in these readings: Language itself turns out to be not only "free" but a precious means of becoming free, of experiencing life beyond the constraints of the ordinary workaday world.
    3. The overriding theme in American literature, as in American life, is that of freedom itself, whether expressed in a laissez-faire economy, in upward mobility, or simply in our belief that we can make ourselves and our lives into something beyond the origins and influences of our births, a theme sometimes called the American dream. No other society has ever professed such beliefs, and it is not surprising that our literature has much to tell us about the viability of these notions.

Our Ongoing War for Independence

Why would literature be a privileged record for this special American story about freedom? The answer: American fiction is something of a battleground in the "war of independence" that human beings—white or black or red or yellow, male or female—wage every day of their lives.

Our war consists of achieving a self, making or maintaining an identity, making our particular mark in the world we inhabit. This is a battle because the 20th century American scene is not particularly hospitable to self-making: great forces coerce our lives, forces that are at once economic, biological, political, racial, and ideological.

We are dogged by not only death and taxes but by the influence of family, of business, of society, of all those potent vectors that constitute the real map and landscape of our lives. This vexed and conflicted terrain does not resemble the smooth résumés that are our shorthand for what we have done, but it does correspond to our experiential awareness of what we go through, how we have changed from childhood to adulthood, what our work and friendships and marriages have been and what they have meant to us. Literature enables us to recover this territory—our territory. The texts presented in this course constitute an enlarged repertory of human resources, of the battle for freedom.

The Heroic Self in a Humbling Land

We begin by looking at the great texts and movements of the 19th century, especially our belief in heroic selfhood, and we begin to see and chart the kinds of forces that make up the moving stage we occupy.

Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio is among the most poignant descriptions of life at the beginning of the century, but the charm of this small-town narrative acquires a deeper hue when we see the amount of repression and inner violence that Anderson chronicles.

Hemingway's In Our Time and Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night are both, in their own ways, about American loss of innocence; about how the Great War and the brutality of modern life permanently altered our belief systems. This theme is presented as physical trauma in Hemingway and as madness and decay in Fitzgerald.

Faulkner's Light in August depicts the ravages of racism in the American South, but it seeks, magnificently, to pair its overt story of carnage and neurosis with another, more elusive fable of love, kinship, and redemption.

We turn to Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first—and perhaps the best—account of growing up black and female in America, a story that is expressed in a kind of language and diction that moves breathlessly from the vernacular to the legendary.

Flannery O'Connor's stories bring a different agenda to our course: the challenge of perceiving the contours of God, spirit, and grace in a seemingly materialist Southern landscape peopled with the lowest profile folks in American literature.

Burroughs' Naked Lunch, once censored and then seen as merely a raunchy drug epic, will be studied as a dazzling and disturbing account of the body in culture, a body that is horribly open and defenseless against the takeovers that beset it.

War returns to our course in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, at once poignant and wacky, speaking to us of mass destruction and of extraterrestrials in the same voice, a voice that is hard to forget.

The course will close with a series of lectures on three of the most significant contemporary writers—writers whose works may not yet be familiar to you.

In his sprawling and audacious Public Burning, Robert Coover uses that most popular American code, entertainment, to present a manic account of the Rosenberg execution and the antics of one Richard Nixon.

Toni Morrison's fascinating Sula is an experimental novel in which Morrison fashions a group of characters whose lives and values make rubble out of the conventions of humanistic culture, whether black or white.

Finally, Don DeLillo's appealing, absurdist comedy of modern life, White Noise, depicts our encounter with the technological madhouse in which we live but which we have not quite gotten around to seeing.


These American fictions, seen together, tell a composite story about coping, about fashioning both a story and a life. The range of experiences and subcultures to be found here will dwarf the experience of any single reader, and that is how it should be. Much is dark in these stories, but the honesty and integrity of these writers adds pith and richness to our own lives and makes us realize that reading is as much a lifeline as it is entertainment or education.

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32 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    American Fiction and the Individualist Creed
    What are the origins of our belief in freedom and individualism? Do other societies share these beliefs? Can we trace the notion of an "atomic self" from 19th-century figures such as Emerson and Whitman to writers of the 20th century? American fiction makes visible to us these central questions about our national life. x
  • 2
    The American Self—Ghost in Disguise
    Many 19th-century authors—Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and James—present heroes that are surprisingly empty, spectral, unreal, even to themselves. This view of the Self as hollow is to be found in several major American novels of the 20th century. Writing and language play a role in facing this dilemma. x
  • 3
    What Produces "Nobody"?
    In addition to the Existential critique of Self as empty or false, there is an equally powerful social explanation at hand: "Nobody" is produced by the discourses of race, gender, and other powerful forces. Being a Self with an agenda was hardly available to slaves or other minorities including women. x
  • 4
    Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio—Writing as the Talking Cure
    Winesburg, once a central text in the canon, is now neglected; why? Anderson is seen as the psychoanalyst of small-town America, and his narrator, George Willard, performs an invaluable purgative role in bringing the repressed villagers to speech. This is a therapeutic function as well as a writerly strategy. x
  • 5
    Winesburg—A New American Prose-Poetry
    Anderson's tales of Winesburg's grotesques have a reach and a philosophic dimension that we have ignored. These stammering tales of confession and expression are semiotic wonders—we can no longer distinguish easily between background and foreground, between details and essentials. x
  • 6
    Hemingway—Journalist, Writer, Legend
    Hemingway's brand of macho is politically incorrect today, but his work remains a permanent feature of the American landscape, and his terse, tight-lipped style has influenced generations of journalists and writers. In Our Time introduces war and violence to American readers in unheard-of ways. x
  • 7
    Hemingway as Trauma Artist
    The double nature of trauma—physical injury and emotional wound—is ideally suited to Hemingway's narrative manner. In his short stories, he shows us the kinds of damage inflicted by war and violence, and he explores the question: How can we possibly find words to convey these experiences with integrity? x
  • 8
    Hemingway's Cunning Art
    The notion of Hemingway as a simple, straightforward, limpid writer is both true and false. The challenge of reading him is to perceive what he called the "fourth and fifth dimensions" of prose, and in his best stories we glimpse something of this larger realm. We see a more ambitious writer than we had thought. x
  • 9
    F. Scott Fitzgerald—Tender Is the Night—Fitzgerald's Second Act
    Fitzgerald, the Golden Boy writer of the 1920s, spends years and years completing Tender Is the Night, a record of lost innocence and impending crackup. The decay theme is coded in terms of sexual aberration and excess. x
  • 10
    Fitzgerald's Psychiatric Tale
    Dick Diver, promising young psychiatrist, marries his beautiful, rich, sick patient, Nicole Warren, a transgression of professional wisdom. Tender follows the classic psychoanalytic structure: working through defenses and covers to the concealed but poisonous wound. x
  • 11
    Dick's Dying Fall—An American Story
    Fitzgerald paints a large canvas of failure, both cultural and artistic, ranging from the Great War to foiled careers. Violence subtends this story at every point—against this fresco of lost hope Diver's grisly decline is charted. The book stages charm's last stand, charm invested with all the charisma that Fitzgerald himself personified. x
  • 12
    Light in August—Midpoint of the Faulkner Career
    Moving from terse narratives of trauma and stream-of-consciousness, Faulkner begins to deal more fully and frontally with racism in Light in August. The book counterpoints the neurotic, damaged life of Joe Christmas, victim of culture, with the pagan and serene existence of Lena Grove, heroine of Nature. x
  • 13
    Light in August—Determinism vs. Freedom
    Joe Christmas, the white man with a little black blood, is one of Faulkner's supremely dysfunctional characters, and his tortured and violent life is juxtaposed against harmonious events of Nature, especially the birth of Lena's infant. This child whose father is not known centers both the novel and its story of the Passion Play. x
  • 14
    Light in August—Novel as Poem, or, Beyond Holocaust
    In Light in August, Faulkner seeks to create a symbolic realm of gestures and meanings that would somehow posit an alternative to the carnage of his racist, misogynistic plot. This new dispensation aims at no less than the revelation of spirit behind flesh, life beyond death, hope outliving horror. x
  • 15
    Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God—Canon Explosion
    Hurston's novel, published in 1937 and out of print, became a cause célèbre in the mid-1970s, championed especially by black feminist critics. The book charts the tumultuous trajectory of its heroine, Janie Crawford, as she seeks "the horizon" via two dubious marriages. x
  • 16
    Their Eyes Were Watching God—From Romance to Myth
    Janie's great love climax comes when she encounters Tea Cake, Hurston's alluring male god: a playful, generous artist of sorts. Janie and Tea Cake's experience in the flood brings this couple into the book's core of feverish vitality and cosmic forces. Hurston's genius consists in telling her story of emancipation and love in terms at once mythic and vernacular. x
  • 17
    Flannery O'Connor—Realist of Distances
    O'Connor's stories challenge the premises of realism; she presents a recognizable everyday scene, peopled with the most ordinary folks, and then proceeds to depict miraculous or otherworldly happenings. Her work raises the stark question: How can one depict the spiritual? x
  • 18
    O'Connor—Taking the Measure of the Region
    Known essentially as a Southern writer, working largely with local Georgia materials, O'Connor probes very deeply into what it means to be from a particular culture, what resources and what blinders that entails. Her most gripping work takes the measure of this scene by inserting it into a framework that includes all history and goes back to the Crucifixion. x
  • 19
    William S. Burroughs—Bad Boy of American Literature
    Burroughs is known essentially as a Beat Generation writer and author of the drug epic, Naked Lunch, but this characterization fails to take his measure as a visionary about American culture. His assessment of drugs and the human craving for them opens a shocking new image of the Self. x
  • 20
    Naked Lunch—The Body in Culture
    Burroughs is a rollicking comic writer, even though his humor is hard for many to stomach. He is also a surrealist author, creating figures of human abuse, exploitation, and ecstasy in ways no other author has attempted. His work places the body in a network of forces that alters our understanding of culture. x
  • 21
    Naked Lunch—Power and Exchange in the Viral World
    Naked Lunch appears fragmentary and chaotic, but it is structured in the most rigorous fashion imaginable, and fueled by one central plot: The parasite takes over the host. What are the implications of this view? Is there any conceivable ethic to accompany such a perspective? x
  • 22
    Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five—Apocalypse Now
    Vonnegut has done what seemed impossible: He wrote a radically experimental book that is also a bestseller. Vonnegut, a survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing, carried this story in him for decades before figuring out how it could possibly be told in a way to express its dreadful power. x
  • 23
    Vonnegut's World—Tralfamadore or Trauma?
    The humor and science fiction dimensions of Slaughterhouse-Five have made it appealing to generations of readers, but one must ask: What is the relation between the fantastic other-worldly reprieve that Billy Pilgrim finds on Tralfamadore, and the experiences he has had in the war? x
  • 24
    Robert Coover—Postmodern Fabulator
    Coover is among the most experimental, playful, and important of our contemporary writers. His work is attuned to power of all stripes, and he seeks to stretch the contours of storytelling in audacious ways. Realism stops making sense, yet there is an undeniable reality-bite to his fictions. x
  • 25
    The Public Burning—Execution at Times Square
    Coover's most significant book, The Public Burning, considers and reconceives a disturbing chapter in American history: the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as spies at the height of the Cold War. Coover elects to present this grisly story in circus, theater, and jingoist slogans to challenge us to reconsider our own collective past. x
  • 26
    Robert Coover—Fiction as Fission
    The Rosenbergs were executed for stealing atomic secrets. Coover has brilliantly explored the real transgression: not their act but nuclear fission itself: the transmutation of the elements in order to liberate energies on a scale never before imagined. Could this be a formula for fiction? x
  • 27
    Toni Morrison's Sula—From Trauma to Freedom
    Toni Morrison, the most celebrated contemporary American writer, fashioned in this early novel a mesmerizing account of a black community, replete with some of the most eccentric and legendary characters in American fiction. A new kind of writing is being born. x
  • 28
    Sula—New Black Woman
    Morrison's tale of two girls, Nel and Sula, is a near scientific account of two ways of being: humane, vulnerable, and normative on one hand, radically egocentric and exploratory on the other. It is an experimental fable of astonishing proportions and implications: to make a character who will stop at nothing. What can we make of this? x
  • 29
    Don DeLillo—Decoder of American Frequencies
    DeLillo's projects resemble those of Balzac, Dickens, and Zola: Draw a map of how we lived during the latter part of the 20th century in America. A major new talent in American writing, he presents places we have been but never seen, experiences we have had but never understood. x
  • 30
    White Noise—Representing the Environment
    DeLillo's comic masterpiece, White Noise, makes visible to us our technological world run amok. Above all, he reconfigures the familiar story of the individual vs. the world, but in his rendition we actually see and hear the world. The environment speaks here, and what it says is worthy of note. x
  • 31
    DeLillo and American Dread
    The central fable behind the narrative of White Noise is the oldest fable we know: fear of dying. DeLillo makes us understand that this fear animates our lives and our society in countless ways, ranging from Fascism to belief in science and miracle drugs. Death is the white noise that is the background for every existence. x
  • 32
    Conclusion—Nobody's Home
    We take stock of the accounts of American life we've examined, and we consider the role that art plays, personally and socially, in bringing us a heightened sense of our national past and our current endeavors. The central drama here, as throughout the century, is the interplay of Self and World, a dynamic that literature makes visible. x

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Your professor

Arnold Weinstein

About Your Professor

Arnold Weinstein, Ph.D.
Brown University
Dr. Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, where he has been teaching for over 35 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in Romance Languages from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Among his many academic honors, research grants, and fellowships is the Younger Humanist Award from the National Endowment for...
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20th-Century American Fiction is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 24.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Professor! I have listened to several courses by Professor Weinstein and I have loved them all. I majored in English literature in college and now have a PhD in sociology, but I am continually impressed both by his range and depth of knowledge and engaging and thoughtful approach to his subject: a rare find in the academic world, in my experience! He relates literature to life, and both are illuminated- I highly recommend this course and the others taught by him.
Date published: 2018-04-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointed The first three lectures are promising in that they indicate Dr. Weinstein will trace a handful of existential themes through the American literary canon. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Beginning with lecture four, he merely comments on random passages from the readings / books he selected for this course. Hence, the lectures do not cohere in any logical fashion. However, there are a few things to enjoy: 1. Dr. Weinstein engages the text with the kind of respect generally associated with New Criticism. 2. The lectures avoid the kind of literary criticism that's sometimes associated with politics. 3. Finally, the lectures are sprinkled with sage insight into myths and archetypes.
Date published: 2017-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Excellent professor. Thoroughly enjoyed every moment.
Date published: 2017-10-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from More Fitzgerald Lies I was surprised that the professor would reiterate the false story of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the famous quote about the rich. In fact, Hemingway is responsible for a famous misquotation of Fitzgerald's. According to Hemingway, a conversation between him and Fitzgerald went: Fitzgerald: The rich are different than you and me. Hemingway: Yes, they have more money. This never actually happened; it is a retelling of an actual encounter between Hemingway and Mary Colum, which went as follows: Hemingway: I am getting to know the rich. Colum: I think you’ll find the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money. The full quotation is found in Fitzgerald's words in his short story "The Rich Boy" (1926), paragraph 3: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand."
Date published: 2012-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Masterful ! Professor Weinstein is irreplacable -- he has the rare ability to add meaningful context and color to narritive. Give yourself a gift -- Your commute will never be boring again.
Date published: 2012-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 20th Century American Fiction Insightful and in-depth analyses supported by text references. Forces me to re-read the texts to see how much I missed the first time.
Date published: 2012-04-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not his best I have no doubt that Dr. Weinstein is one of the very best of the TCC pantheon. This is not his best. Old course (1996); and not available in DVD. You miss his visual presence which adds a lot to his other works. HIs material choices are bold: Faulkner, Burroughs, O Connor, etc. None the less this is not up to his general course on American Literature. Most would be happier with that work.
Date published: 2010-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Great Course by Professor Weinstein This course is a wonderful complement to Weinstein's "Classics of American Literature" and to Patrick Allitt's "American Identity." As to the former, it adds to the authors and works he's already analyzed in the same intriguing and detailed manner; as to the latter, as Allitt uncovers the national persona through biographies, Weinstein does the same by examining its literature. This is a great investment for those seeking to understand the American Mind.
Date published: 2009-04-25
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