Classics of American Literature

Course No. 250
Professor Arnold Weinstein, Ph.D.
Brown University
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Course No. 250
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Study the first American story - and the first American storyteller - in the context of the nation's history.
  • numbers Take an in-depth look at the Transcendentalist movement and its impact on philosophy, religion, and literature.
  • numbers Examine the ways American literature was used to perpetuate Puritan morals and values.
  • numbers Explore American books and authors who promoted groundbreaking ideals - and ensconced them into modern society.

Course Overview

To truly understand the United States of America, you must explore its literary tradition. Works by Melville, Whitman, Faulkner, Hemingway, and others are more than just masterpieces of Western literature – they’re powerful windows into America’s spirit. According to Professor Arnold Weinstein, “American classics are wonderfully rich fare. America is a mythic land, a place with a sense of its own destiny and promise, a place that has experienced bloody wars to achieve that destiny. The events of American history shine forth in our classics."

When was the last time you read them? Possibly not as recently as you'd like. Why? Not because you wouldn't love it. But perhaps the demands of your daily life or some other reason have prevented this pleasure. Now, here is the opportunity to gain an extraordinary familiarity with each of these authors within a manageable amount of time, as well as review the great works you may already know.

What Explains Greatness?

These works are both American and classics. The course has been crafted to explain why some works become classics while others do not, why some "immortal" works fade from our attention completely, and even why some contemporary works now being ignored or snubbed by critics may be considered immortal one day.

One memorable work at a time, you'll see how each of these masterpieces shares the uncompromising uniqueness that invariably marks the entire American literary canon.

From Sleepy Hollow to The Great Gatsby, Professor Weinstein contends that the literary canon lives, grows, and changes. What links these writers to each other—and to us readers today—is the awareness that the past lives and changes as generations of writers and readers step forward to interpret it anew.

The course was born from Professor Weinstein's conviction that American literature is our "great estate," and that claiming this rightful inheritance—the living past and the lessons we can take from it—should be nothing less than a unique and joyous learning experience.

Experience Two Centuries of America's Greatest Works

Professor Weinstein explains that America's classic works should be savored as part of our inner landscape: part of how we see both America and ourselves.

He leads you through more than two centuries of the best writers America has yet produced, bringing out the beauty of their language, the excitement of their stories, and the value in what they say about life, power, love, adventure, and what it means, in every sense, to be American.

Perhaps you recall:

  • Melville's prowling Ahab, on the search for Moby Dick, and the power of the "grand, ungodly, Godlike man"
  • The quiet diner in The Grapes of Wrath and the pain of one of John Steinbeck's "Okies" trying to purchase a dime's worth of bread
  • The parlor in Long Day's Journey Into Night and the lifetime of tension in a simple request to a father that he turn on the lights.

Rip Van Winkle falls asleep for 25 years for some mysterious reason—but what exactly was it? Why did Emerson believe in self-reliance, and why do we?

Twain, our first media celebrity, tells stories that have an inkling of Peter Pan: Tom Sawyer never does grow up. But Huck Finn must grow up to face the racism of the South and get past his own polluted conscience—can he do it? James brings American innocents to Europe for them to inherit the world—but do they?

Discover the Stories behind America's Immortal Writers

Consider that:

  • Emily Dickinson was virtually unheard of in her own time.
  • William Faulkner's books were out of print until the mid-1940s.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing he had been forgotten.

Readers of their times would be astounded if they knew the immortality these writers achieved, just as we are astounded that they once were overlooked.

Most of us don't know that when Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass—seemingly in answer to Ralph Waldo Emerson's memorable wish for the poet America deserved—he sent a copy to Emerson, America's most revered man of letters. When Emerson replied in extraordinarily flattering terms, Whitman published his letter, virtually forcing the new poet's acceptance by a literati that would might have preferred to flee from Whitman's startlingly new, often sexual, poetry.

Perhaps you share the common picture of Emily Dickinson: a passive, gentle, reclusive spinster content in her father's Amherst, Massachusetts, home. If so, allow Professor Weinstein to introduce you to her friend, clergyman and author Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who said of "gentle" Emily: "I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."

Through this course, you will learn to:

  • Explain the roles of self-reliance and the "self-made man" in the evolution of American literature
  • Identify the tenets of American Romanticism
  • Describe the evolution of the American ghost story, from Poe and Hawthorne to James and Morrison
  • Outline the epic strain in American literature, from Melville and Whitman to Faulkner and Ellison
  • Explain the importance of slavery as a critical subject for Stowe, Twain, Faulkner, and Morrison
  • Summarize perspectives on nature revealed in poets Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Eliot
  • Identify the tenets of Modernism in the work of Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner
  • Identify the contributions of O'Neill, Miller, and Williams to American theater
  • Summarize the threads of the complex relationship between America's great writers and the past.
Savor the Joy of Great Reading

Dr. Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, where he has been teaching literature to packed classrooms since 1968. Brown University student course evaluation summaries reported: "By far, students' greatest lament was that they only got to listen to Professor Weinstein once a week."

One customer writes: "Professor Weinstein is inspiring. Not only am I enjoying these lectures, but I am also rereading these wonderful classics and having a wonderful time."

The course will lead you to read or reread masterpieces that intrigue you most. And with the deeper understanding you gain from the lectures, you will likely experience such joy from great reading that you may wonder why you have spent so much time on contemporary books.

The 84 carefully crafted lectures in this course, each 30 minutes long, are your royal road to recapturing the American experience—and our intellectual and cultural heritage. Just review the lecture titles. All of this can be yours, and the journey will be as rewarding as the arrival.

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84 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction to Classics of American Literature
    What do we mean by a "classic"? And what makes these original and uncompromising works "American"? x
  • 2
    Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography—The First American Story
    Franklin is one of the towering figures of America. His life is an example of self-making so potent it created what we now call the American Dream. x
  • 3
    Washington Irving—The First American Storyteller
    This no-longer-fashionable writer has much more than nostalgic value, revealing many of the growing pains and anxieties that accompanied the momentous shift from English colony to independent nation. x
  • 4
    Ralph Waldo Emerson Yesterday—America's Coming of Age
    Ralph Waldo Emerson was the guiding spirit of American Romanticism, and his early works created a resounding "declaration of independence" from the Old World in culture, literature, and ethics. x
  • 5
    Emerson Today—Architect of American Values
    Emerson's most famous work, "Self-Reliance," offered a bold and confident vision of the Self to which American values are still in debt—provided we remain alert to its radical implications. x
  • 6
    Emerson Tomorrow—Deconstructing Culture and Self
    Though Emerson is easily misconstrued as a facile optimist, his thinking went much deeper, vigorously confronting issues like alienation even as he envisioned a heartening ethic of freedom. x
  • 7
    Henry David Thoreau—Countercultural Hero
    Long regarded as a shadow to Emerson, Thoreau has made his own reputation as dissenter and environmentalist, achieving in Walden a homespun pragmatism of great appeal in a society that has lost contact with the land. x
  • 8
    Thoreau—Stylist and Humorist Extraordinaire
    Thoreau deserves far more serious accounting as a writer—a voice rich in pungent humor, biting satire, and splendid evocations of the natural world. x
  • 9
    Walden—Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
    Thoreau transcends ideology as he fashions a breathtaking new language for portraying nature. In his paean to the surging life forces at Walden Pond, he offers us a new discourse of hope. x
  • 10
    Edgar Allan Poe
    Poe's poetry is often dismissed, but his finest work is haunting in its suggestiveness. Even more certain is the impact of his famous theory of literature, which forever altered the course of European poetry. x
  • 11
    Poe—Ghost Writer
    Well before Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Poe was plumbing the depths of the divided self in haunting tales such as "William Wilson," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," and "The Fall of the House of Usher," raising familiar phantoms that haunt all of us. x
  • 12
    Poe's Legacy—The Self as “Haunted Palace”
    An examination of three of Poe's most fully realized short stories—"The Black Cat," "The Tell-tale Heart," and "The Pit and the Pendulum"—shows how rich and bristling Poe's territory is. x
  • 13
    Nathaniel Hawthorne and the American Past
    Hawthorne was America's first great artist of the novel and short story, and in this lecture we see how his search for subject matter drew him into a past he saw as richer and more compelling than the young nation of his own time. x
  • 14
    The Scarlet Letter—Puritan Romance
    In telling this complex tale of Puritan crime and punishment, Hawthorne creates a fresh, riddling vision of fiction that defies our own efforts to arrive at a final interpretation. x
  • 15
    Hawthorne's “A”—Interpretation and Semiosis
    Hawthorne's "A" is the most famous and potent hieroglyph in American literature, with meanings that transcend the boundaries of the obvious "Adultery" to include "Able," "Angel," and, indeed, "Art." x
  • 16
    The Scarlet Letter—Political Tract or Psychological Study?
    The traditional reading of The Scarlet Letter is a psychological one. But this remarkable novel also reflected many of the political conflicts of the mid-19th-century America in which it was written, including the women's movement, the threat of anarchy and revolution, and the nature of dissent. x
  • 17
    Hawthorne Our Contemporary
    Hawthorne is the first American writer to brood on the idea of the past—both personal and societal—and to explore morality without flinching. He heralds the great dark novels of Faulkner and other Southern writers, as well as the New England literature of Cheever, Lowell, and Gaddis. x
  • 18
    Herman Melville and the Making of Moby-Dick
    Melville had already built a successful reputation as a true-life adventure writer by the time he began work on Moby-Dick. x
  • 19
    The Biggest Fish Story of Them All
    Although whaling is covered in extraordinary detail, Melville's ultimate topic is greatness itself. His depictions of whales at sea are springboards for profound meditations on the nature and whereabouts of truth. x
  • 20
    Ahab and the White Whale
    In Ahab, Melville creates and indigenous American tragic hero—a mad imperial figure whose quest becomes a map of the human enterprise, the heights and depths of which Melville charts in unforgettable ways. x
  • 21
    Moby-Dick—Tragedy of Perspective
    A limited point of view is the fate of all people, and one of Melville's greatest achievements is to render Ahab's monomaniacal quest from the perspectives of several participants, giving readers a dramatic perspective. x
  • 22
    Melville's “Benito Cereno”—American (Mis)adventure at Sea
    One of Melville's most brilliant works is the largely unread short story, "Benito Cereno." In this strange and complex account of an encounter with a mysterious slave ship, Melville's choice of narrator allows him to make a striking and original contribution to the contemporary debate over race and colonialism. x
  • 23
    “Benito Cereno”—Theater of Power or Power of Theater?
    The true meaning of the strange events of Benito Cereno" is withheld from the narrator—and thus the reader—until the very end. This technique enables Melville's meditation on power to make its most telling point about the nature of "vision" as a cultural product. x
  • 24
    Walt Whitman—The American Bard Appears
    Emerson, spokesperson for mid-19th-century literary America, had asked when America would have the poet it deserved. Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, is the dramatic answer, in which Whitman celebrates the political, moral, and verbal grandeur of democratic America. x
  • 25
    Whitman—Poet of the Body
    Whitman's powerful portrayal of the human body struck a deep—and often offensive—note in his 19th-century audience. Reversing body/spirit dualism and its religious corollary of a superior spirit, he insisted instead on the sanctity of the body and its natural passions. x
  • 26
    Whitman—Poet of the City
    Whitman ranks as one of the first poets to plumb the changes wrought by the modern city. In one of his greatest poems, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he bears witness to the city as an unparalleled locus of energy, encounter, and attachment. x
  • 27
    Whitman—Poet of Death
    Although Whitman is properly seen as a vital, even titanic, force whose poems celebrate life in all its varieties, a deep intimacy with death runs throughout his work. As life's truth and art's source, death emerges as the bedrock of his poetry. x
  • 28
    The Whitman Legacy
    This lecture examines the signature features of Whitman's art: the humor, elusiveness, open-endedness, and the genial persona as intimate and guide that endows his work with such an intense, personal flavor. x
  • 29
    Uncle Tom's Cabin—The Unread Classic
    Harriet Beecher Stowe published several novels, but she is known only for this one, which captured the attention of the entire world in 1852 but has since virtually vanished from the landscape. Her book changed the course of American history, but many readers have trouble with it, and we examine why. x
  • 30
    Stowe's Representation of Slavery
    Stowe approaches the outrage of slavery and its assault on the family from the viewpoint of a mother who has herself lost children, and we see how the book's authority is inseparable from its family theme. x
  • 31
    Freedom and Art in Uncle Tom's Cabin
    The power of Stowe's classic depiction of slavery derives from the alternative vision she proposes at every step: an absolute freedom whose spirit shimmers throughout the book, which emerges as a far greater tribute to art than we have thought. x
  • 32
    Emily Dickinson—In and Out of Nature
    Dickinson's poems are either breathtaking in their immediacy, with the natural world delivered fresh and vital for our inspection—or inferential to the point of madness. This lecture explores how Dickinson's poems often put our own deciphering powers to the test. x
  • 33
    Dickinson's Poetry—Language and Consciousness
    We see how Dickinson's poetry helps us realize that the project of great literature is frequently one of unnaming—cleansing the world from its customary labels in order to invite fresh perceptions. x
  • 34
    Dickinson—Devotee of Death
    Dickinson is perhaps best known for her startling poems about death, including her own death, and we see the extraordinary range that this unsettling subject provides her. x
  • 35
    Dickinson—"Amherst's Madame de Sade"
    Dickinson was far from the simple figure she cunningly constructed for posterity—the virginal, demure, wrenlike observer of the world around her—and we enjoy the tonic provided by her harsh language and recurring bouts of murder and mayhem that punctuate so many of her poems. x
  • 36
    Dickinson's Legacy
    We examine a legacy that is clear in many regards, including her role as a "poetic founding mother" among feminists in particular and women in general, and her status as the great metaphysical poet of the 19th century—with a sense of wit and brilliance that have no counterpart in American literature. x
  • 37
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—American Paradise Regained
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was Mark Twain's first foray into children's literature, but its enduring hold on the American imagination is testimony to his already keen, even shrewd, sense of American boyhood and innocence. x
  • 38
    Huckleberry Finn—The Banned Classic
    Ever since its appearance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has offended, with its views on race and language hotly disputed. But its significance as a central text about the journey to freedom is indisputable. x
  • 39
    Huckleberry Finn—A Child's Voice, a Child's Vision
    We see the truth in Hemingway's claim that all modern American literature comes from this single volume. We come to understand Twain's achievement in examining slavery through the eyes of a child who discovers that his conscience, shaped by the society in which he lives, is at war with his heart. x
  • 40
    Huckleberry Finn, American Orphan
    We learn that the central truth of this great novel is Huck's orphanhood, and now Jim's symbolic role as Huck's father is only achievable when all of the obstacles of race and class have been surmounted. x
  • 41
    Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson—Black and White Charade
    Pudd'nhead Wilson is Twain's most experimental, even surrealistic, novel, and it deserves much fuller recognition as his boldest account of the conventions of race and class—a meditation on the kinds of freedom that are available to us, in art if not in life. x
  • 42
    Henry James and the Novel of Perception
    Henry James is not easy for modern readers. His writing displays a complexity not easily negotiated by those accustomed to the work of Hemingway and the Minimalists. A look at The Ambassadors will allow us to gauge both the Jamesian manner and the crucial role that imagination plays in his fictional world. x
  • 43
    The Turn of the Screw—Do You Believe in Ghosts?
    The Turn of the Screw is a candidate for the greatest story in literature, even though it has none of the Gothic features so familiar to us. Its themes of innocence and guilt, swirling around two children, have no less power to terrify us than any of Poe's or Hawthorne's darkest stories. x
  • 44
    Turning the Screw of Interpretation
    There are two totally opposed readings of James's famous ghost story—one that denies it has any ghosts at all—and we see how the story reveals the moral stakes of interpretation, and how lethal that interpretation can be. x
  • 45
    Stephen Crane and the Literature of War
    The Red Badge of Courage, written by a young man who had never been in battle, took the world by storm and gave birth to a new kind of American writing about war: an unflinching, quasi-journalistic vision that showed a new image of the human combatant. x
  • 46
    The Red Badge of Courage—Brave New World
    Crane's central strategy is to juxtapose the inner private world of a soldier in battle with the external world around him, and we see how he invents a new kind of expressionistic prose to accomplish this. x
  • 47
    Stephen Crane—Scientist of Human Behavior
    Many argue that Crane's greatest accomplishments lie in the realm of the short story. We take a close look at two of his most famous forays in this genre: "The Open Boat" and "The Blue Hotel." x
  • 48
    Charlotte Perkins Gilman—War Against Patriarchy
    Gilman's work is filled with tribulations of family, especially the impossible demands placed on women. Her fateful encounter with America's ruling physician of hysteria, S. Weir Mitchell, ultimately produced this harrowing account of a woman essentially going mad by a doctor's orders. x
  • 49
    “The Yellow Wallpaper”—Descent into Hell or Free at Last?
    This 20-page story is one of the most unforgettable pieces of prose in all of American literature, lodging itself in the mind in a Kafkaesque manner and leaving readers with a most difficult task of final assessment. x
  • 50
    Robert Frost and the Spirit of New England
    The reputation of Robert Frost is by no means a settled matter, and there are many scholars who still insist on denying all seriousness in his work. But a careful look at some of his most well-known poems shows us that they are considerably more complex and less settled than is usually thought. x
  • 51
    Robert Frost—“At Home in the Metaphor”
    Every poet has a stake in the significance of metaphor, and we learn about the debate over whether this vital tool too often substitutes a poet's own projections for "hard facts." Frost was critically alert to this problem, and some of his most interesting poems show us that they are considerably more complex and less settled than is usually thought. x
  • 52
    Robert Frost and the Fruits of the Earth
    Although countless poets have waxed lyrical about Nature and the "good life," Frost remains one of the few who have written about work. We look at some of his most unforgettable poems about labor in all of its guises. x
  • 53
    T.S. Eliot—Unloved Modern Classic
    Eliot's importance as both poet and critic was recognized almost as soon as he burst on the scene, and this lecture begins our examination of a career that ultimately defined him as the arbiter for English-speaking poetry in the first half of the 20th century. x
  • 54
    T.S. Eliot—“The Waste Land” and Beyond
    No poem challenges us like "The Waste Land," which demands that we domesticate its fierce strangeness and confront its formidable array of artifice and allusion. We journey into the heart of this monumental poem before concluding with a brief look at Eliot's haunting final work, "The Four Quartets." x
  • 55
    F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby—American Romance
    F. Scott Fitzgerald is our great chronicler of the Jazz Age, and this distinguished masterpiece shows why. But the book is more than mere chronicle. As we look at the writer understood to be the "lyric poet of Capitalism," we begin to understand the burning desire that drives Gatsby. x
  • 56
    The Great Gatsby—A Story of Lost Illusions?
    We take a closer look at Gatsby's flawed characters and the dreams they pursue, and we grapple with the same questions that faced their author: Is the dream itself flawed? And can desire—even the superhuman desire that has animated Gatsby—be sustained once it is gratified? x
  • 57
    Fitzgerald's Triumph—Writing the American Dream
    We learn that Fitzgerald saw the story of Gatsby as a tale of how dreams give glory to life, whether they are true or not, and that the dream itself is incorruptible, no matter how the dreamer and the woman he loved might be discredited. x
  • 58
    Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises—Novel of the Lost Generation
    As the 20th century ends, Hemingway's reputation in the American canon is under fire, even though his status as the most influential American prose-writer of the century is without dispute. We begin our examination of how this irony came to be with a look at the novel often regarded as Hemingway's best. x
  • 59
    The Sun Also Rises—Spiritual Quest
    On the surface, this novel—which first introduced America to the Paris of the 1920s—seems like pure realism. We soon realize that the plight of Hemingway's Americans in Europe has deeply symbolic overtones. x
  • 60
    Ernest Hemingway—Wordsmith
    More than any other writer, Hemingway remade the American literary language; much of the verbiage and rhetoric of "English" has vanished from American prose because of his efforts. Yet nothing is as simple as it appears, and this lecture about the way Hemingway used words may change the way you view this seminal writer. x
  • 61
    Hemingway's The Garden of Eden—Female Desire Unleashed
    In this posthumously published and fiercely edited version of a 1500-page manuscript that Hemingway worked on for more than a decade, we finally see the explosive sexual issues that lurked behind the scenes of his other work, as well as his first fully developed female character. x
  • 62
    The Garden of Eden—Combat Zone
    We conclude our look at Hemingway with the frankest account we will ever have from him about the relationship between the sexes. x
  • 63
    William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury—The Idiot's Tale
    Beginning with an overview of William Faulkner's career, this lecture introduces the masterpiece that marks his reinvention of the novel form: the account of a Southern family's decline that opens with the most famous piece of American prose of the 20th century—the idiot's monologue. x
  • 64
    The Sound and the Fury—Failed Rites of Passage
    We see how Faulkner enlists stream-of-consciousness style to explore the gathering drama of a young man's agonized sense of failure—giving us a prose that duplicates in print the rich, choruslike nature of human thought. x
  • 65
    The Sound and the Fury—Signifying Nothing?
    In the final part of the novel, Faulkner narrates in the third person, thereby changing entirely what the reader sees and bringing issues of community into this drama of a sick and dying nuclear family. x
  • 66
    Absalom, Absalom!—Civil War Epic
    Published in the same year as Gone With the Wind, Faulkner's most complex novel collapses all of the narrative distinctions of Margaret Mitchell's linear plot, crafting a story that moves forward, backward, and sideways in giving us a profound view of the unhealed wounds of the Civil War. x
  • 67
    Absalom, Absalom!—The Language of Love
    This lecture will explain the reasons behind Faulkner's intentionally disjointed prose and the remarkable impact it allowed him to make. x
  • 68
    Absalom, Absalom!—The Overpass to Love
    In this final lecture on Faulkner, we see how the two youthful narrators are made to epitomize the novel's deepest concerns: how we process the past and what we bring with us when we enter the lives of other people and other times. Their joint narrative heroics constitute Faulkner's noblest utterance about what literature can predict. x
  • 69
    The Grapes of Wrath—American Saga
    Published in 1939, this documentarylike tale of people uprooted from their land by the Great Depression created a literary sensation, selling 430,000 copies in its first year. We see how Steinbeck's novel bears witness to the destruction of a way of life—a covenant between man and the land—that cannot survive the displacements of the industrial age. x
  • 70
    John Steinbeck—Poet of the Little Man
    Although he has been maligned as a superficial writer who deals in stereotypes rather than credible characters, Steinbeck's prose has a remarkable bite and pungency that reveals the collective voice of a nation and the forces that govern it. x
  • 71
    The Grapes of Wrath—Reconceiving Self and Family
    Will the revenge implied by the title actually come? Does justice prevail? Is there a reward for the innocent? Wisely, Steinbeck refrains from answering, but in the novel's controversial conclusion, he reconceives the bonds of family with a redemptive vision. x
  • 72
    Invisible Man—Black Bildungsroman
    Ralph Ellison's novel comes at a time when Richard Wright's Native Son seemed to epitomize the goals of much black writing: a tragic, brilliant account of conflict depicted as social realism. We see how Ellison creates an entirely new idiom commensurate with the rich, multileveled story he wants to tell. x
  • 73
    Invisible Man—Reconceiving History and Race
    Much of the drama of this famous work—often regarded as a candidate for "novel of the century"—is rooted in the protagonist's search for authority. We see how the events of his life repeatedly re-emphasize his "invisibility," and how each bout of futility and exploitation is contrasted with moments of passion and self-discovery. x
  • 74
    Invisible Man—“What Did I Do, to Be So Black and Blue?”
    The patron saint of Ellison's book and of his artistic vision is Louis Armstrong, and we see how Armstrong's music—composed of bits and pieces of black history, improvisational rather than rigid, adept at recycling and "signifying"—announces the new aesthetic that reigns in this novel. x
  • 75
    Eugene O'Neill—Great God of American Theater
    Though O'Neill's language can seem flat on paper, his plays succeed magnificently on stage, where he rules supreme as America's premier dramatist, single-handed creator of an entire repertory of plays and theatrical techniques. We examine his roots and see how key events of his life are central to many of his plays. x
  • 76
    Long Day's Journey Into Night—There's No Place Like Home
    O'Neill's genius lies in his theatrical vision, his ability to invest the simplest everyday events into shimmering symbols, resonant with feeling and history. By the end of this story of accusation and revelation, every member of a tortured family has bared his or her soul, and we know the full power of the theater. x
  • 77
    Tennessee Williams—Managing Libido
    This lecture examines the great themes of Williams's work and takes a close look at The Glass Menagerie, the only major Williams play to be untroubled by sexuality, before introducing his masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire. x
  • 78
    A Streetcar Named Desire—The Death of Romance
    Two of Williams's most memorable characters negotiate a tense battle over the place of beauty and poetry in a harsh and pragmatic culture, while beauty itself makes a pathetic stand against the passage of time. x
  • 79
    Death of a Salesman—Death of an Ethos?
    The passage of time is also a character in Arthur Miller's most memorable play, as the "national conscience" of American theater tells the story of a salesman facing the agonizing realization that he is becoming obsolete in his own lifetime. x
  • 80
    Death of a Salesman—Tragedy of the American Dream
    Miller's play becomes a tragedy of the Modern Age, questioning our notions of defining, achieving and sustaining success in a world that breeds disillusion. x
  • 81
    Toni Morrison's Beloved—Dismembering and Remembering
    Toni Morrison has become the pre-eminent American novelist of our time, and in this first of three lectures devoted to her most acclaimed work, we see her original approach to exploring the profound wound that slavery has left in the black—and the national—psyche. x
  • 82
    Beloved—A Story of “Thick Love”
    Though we know from the outset that Morrison's novel deals with a hidden crime, the full horror and resonance of that crime are slow to unfold. When they do, however, we are immersed in a monstrous tale, before arriving at Morrison's astonishing version of a people's origins. x
  • 83
    Beloved—Morrison's Writing of the Body
    Morrison shows us that a literature of the body is both possible and long overdue, producing a work whose power comes from its insistent translation of slavery into physical terms—a crime committed against the body and against the tenderness and compassion that any human being should be able to share. x
  • 84
    Conclusion to Classics of American Literature
    In concluding this course we learn that literature, more than anything else, is a privileged access to the lessons of the past, a past we continue to live in, even as we turn our attention to the future. 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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Classics of American Literature is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 68.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Superb instructor and content. This is a marvelous course. The professor, not surprisingly, knows his stuff. If you're like me and took several American Literature courses in college but never had the time to delve into them, you'll appreciate this overview. It'll help you identify quickly those authors whose works you'll want to read in their entirety. I'd take other courses by this professor.
Date published: 2017-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An invaluable resource This course has shaped my thinking in a very meaningful way. The professor's discussions are for me an excellent balance of criticism, synopsis, historical background and the work's place/relevance in modern day. I find other teaching company courses to not be sufficiently academic. Some of his discussions are just gorgeous, his take on Beecher Stowe, Faulkner and Morrison have stayed with me in particular. Of course, there are places where he doesn't, to me, quite hit the nail with gender, race, disability issues etc, but the professor acknowledges his own limitations. I think his approach of taking every work seriously, and analyzing what is there, but also exploring each author's own limitations, and what that reveals about them and society, is a very useful and effective. We will all disagree on how to discuss Huck Finn and Uncle Tom's Cabin, but with this course gives many ideas on how to have that discussion. You can play the "where is so-and-so" game endlessly, but where is Wharton!? when you have 84 lectures and just a handful of women writers, why would you leave her out? Fabulous course overall. Would love to see a new course in the same style with more modern writers! Please!
Date published: 2017-04-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Sound quality poor. Speaks to fast, to softly and mumbles some words.
Date published: 2017-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Classics of American Literature Just started the course and so far I've really enjoyed. Looking forward to more. The course has inspired me to read these classics.
Date published: 2017-03-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Could have been great I thought the course was good, but there several problems. The selection of writers and the time spent on them was misplaced. Emerson and Thoreau are bores and don't need three lectures. Stowe needs only one. Henry James needs at least five. Then he selects The Turn of the Screw for discussion and avoids the great James novels - The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors. Eliot is slighted and there is no Stevens. Toni Morrison instead of Saul Bellow or James Baldwin? Dreiser should have been included. Irving and Poe were nice surprises and much of the Hawthorne was new to me. Benito Cereno and Wakefield were good additions as was The Garden of Eden. Weinstein is of his time and it has passed. I know because I was in graduate school (Chicago) studying American literature at the same time he was. Freud has become an historical curiosity and does not provide a basis for psychological insight. The fad of semiotics is tiresome. The political correctness of the authors covered is a further distortion, but I guess that goes with the times. We can be thankful he didn't include Pearl Buck.
Date published: 2017-03-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Inauspicious start This is, perhaps, a bit premature, as I have just started the second lecture on Emerson. I agree with some of the observations already recorded here--Prof Weinstein has an annoying habit of dropping the volume of his voice and mumbling. But what caught my immediate attention occurred in just the second lecture, which was mostly about Benjamin Franklin. That part was fine, so far as it went, but his initial contrast of Franklin with Jonathan Edwards betrayed an appalling ignorance of the latter's body of work and significance. To say this first taste left me unimpressed is a profound understatement. It makes me distrust his reliability going forward--if he can get Edwards so wrong, how am I to depend on what he teaches in the remainder of the course?
Date published: 2017-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from overall excellence excellent professor, excellent and stimulating material, well arranged and presented.
Date published: 2017-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It gets better as you listen further I may have critically reviewed this course in the past but I am updating the review now. After listening to select lectures on Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and other authors of that period I believe Dr. Weinstein does a really good summary of each author. The beginning of the course is not as full as I would wanted. I thought he was lacking in depth on Emerson and Thoreau, but there is another course on these authors by the teaching company that is much better. Overall the course is great but may lack in depth study at times. I always enter it 'in media res' (in the middle) because I want to know about a certain author. Still listening now. I like when he actually reads from the works he is discussing. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Mark Twain's lectures are excellent as are Harriet Beecher Stowe's.
Date published: 2015-11-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Halfway Complete I've been enjoying the content of this course very much and I've recommended it to my professor friends as well. But you as a potential listener, and The Great Courses in particular need to be aware of the following: this course is not well-engineered and thus much of what the speaker says is inaudible. I admit to frustration in playing all the tracks over-loud to not miss those moments when the lecturer mumbles or turns his head away from the microphone in these live audience situations. This is unfortunate as the lecturer's range of reference is wonderfully broad and in every other way imparts enthusiasm for the material he presents. He even modulates his delivery method where appropriate with theatrics with convincing effect. But, in general, if I can't hear the points he's making-and I know it's the engineering- I feel obliged to bring this up. This you should know before you purchase these discs or download the same. Your library either has this item or you can get this item on inter-library loan. With all that negativity said, this course, (what I can hear) brings me back day after day. It does not matter that I have not read all the texts that the students have to whom he's speaking in the classroom. It matters that I want to know more about the existentialist Ralph and his neighbor, Henry. And what drives Emily who hardly ever leaves her house up in Amherst, and why Mark get writer's block when Huck and Jim get to Cairo. There is, in fact, so much of value in these lectures for me, engineering issues notwithstanding, that I foresee myself having a go at much of it at least one more time.
Date published: 2015-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An enriching, enlightening stroll . . . Through helping us hear the voices of the authors who weave human need and experience into their stories, novels and poetry, Professor Weinstein leads us on "a search for America". He helps us explore the works of 250 years of American writers as they infuse the country's historical narrative with the experiential. With insight and humor we are led in a "you come too" approach that is irresistible. I am forever grateful.
Date published: 2014-04-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from omission of a major author I do not know how it is possible in 84 lectures to disregard James Fenimore Cooper who was author of the famous Leather -Stocking series which included Last pf the Mohicans , Pathfinder &,Deerslayer as well as 27 other novels that helped develop sea tales, the Western as well as Revolutionary romances..
Date published: 2014-01-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A Disappointing Course. I generally disregard the most negative criticisms of any book, course, or product. Sadly, in this case, I should have paid more attention to the negative reviews. Most annoying to me was the tendency of Professor Weinstein's voice to drop to a near inaudible whisper at the end of various passages. I frequently had to backup the CD and increase the volume to understand what he said. If this was my only criticism I would not be putting my comments here. But the content of the course was my greatest disappointment. I really learned little of any interest or lasting value that would be useful outside of an academic realm. Other literature courses that I've purchased have made me want to read books that I'd not read before, or even reread those that I had. I could not say the same of this course. This course has gotten many 4 and 5 star reviews so I'm sure there are many who will vehemently disagree with my comments. So be it. Still, before you decide to purchase this course, be sure that you at least consider some of the points made in the less flattering reviews. You may wish you had.
Date published: 2013-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! AUDIO Professor Weinstein’s lectures are great, considerably in-depth studies that will enrich your experience of these American Classics. I listened to the course originally several months ago, but find I am drawn back to individual lectures from time to time. I find even more in them the second time around. Based on this course, I recently purchased Professor Weinstein’s ‘Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature’ course. Professor Weinstein has a good presentation style and keeps my interest throughout. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2013-10-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I Hate Literary Criticism! I almost tried to get my money back on this series after listening to 8 lectures or so. I am a long-time Great Courses listener and I rank this course toward the bottom. I've listened to several other literature courses (Lessons from Great Books, British Literature, etc.# which were great because they summarized the book, explained the authors' background, talked to the importance of the book in its historical context, and so on. Professor Weinstein on the other hand dives directly into the symbolism of selected paragraphs in a 600 page book which if I am lucky I read 15 years ago and have since largely forgotten -- and he provides little summary, background, or context to bring listeners who have not read the book up to speed. Lectures focused around on highly forgettable topics of literary criticism #"why does she wear a white dress during this meeting?"# and so after 30 minutes of listening I often felt as if I had learned nothing of any lasting value #I kept asking myself question like "why I am wasting my time listening to the lecturer theorizing about why the author had the character wear a white dress in one page in a book?"#. The entire course reminded me why I hated studying the Scarlet Letter and the Great Gatsby in high school, not because they are bad books, but purely because of the manner of discussing them through the technique of literary criticism.
Date published: 2013-10-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from AmerLit I thoroughly enjoyed the scope and scale of this course. Proff. W is a brilliant light on the topic. tpo
Date published: 2013-10-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An Englishman's Viewpoint... CD REVIEW: It was astounding to hear a professor, lecturing on literature, use the term "most perfect" time after time. The word "perfect" is an absolute; it cannot be qualified in degree. This is an extremely basic point, which I was taught when I was about 10. Similarly, I learned "opacity", while Dr Weinstein uses "opaqueness". Additionally, the lecturer's coughing, long pauses and "ars" were annoying: these could so very easily have been edited out, certainly for the audio course! Dr Weinstein has a high-pitched voice, and on my CDs it was muffled, strangely -- probably owing to the use of the wrong kind of microphone. I think these lectures are quite old. On the plus side, the course comprises an excellent choice of the best American literature and is an important series from Great Courses. Detailed attention is given, appropriately, to the luminaries in the field. The professor offers valuable insights into the authors' thinking and philosophies, showing us the whys and hows of the development of the books and poetry. My favourite lectures were those on Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, and Herman Melville. The five lectures on Mark Twain were well-deserved; this author is perhaps the best-known of all American writers. I did not find it a real disadvantage to lack familiarity with some of the books. I believe this course is an encouragement to read these authors. As an Englishman, I believe it is important to have a working knowledge of the leading American writers, in addition to a firm grounding in the "traditional" masters of our English language. I recommend the course but feel it could be improved.
Date published: 2013-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course, Better Professor These lectures are brilliant readings of the the most complex and iconic works of American literature. Professor Weinstein's delivery is passionate, articulate, insightful and inspiring, and his readings of these works interpret not only the individual books but their connections to the canon. The highlights of this course - there are almost too many to name - are his readings of Poe, Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner and Hemingway. Professor Weinstein treatment of the issue of race in American literature is particularly sensitive. Most important, Professor Weinstein humanizes these works and teaches how literature speaks to the human condition and everyday life. There is something to learn from every single lecture in this course and I strongly recommend it not only to literature students but to lifelong learners and readers.
Date published: 2013-06-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Rather Disappointing After reading the many five star reviews, I purchased this course. It was my fifth one. I have to say it has been a disappointing experience. Professor Weinstein has a very monotonous voice; I had a hard time staying awake. He quotes extensively from the novels, but it is difficult to follow him because the words are never illustrated in the DVD version. It also should be made clear to future buyers that previous reading of the texts is a necessity for understanding the lectures. Overall, this is my least favorite course from The Teaching Company.
Date published: 2013-04-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Poor presentation, I suppose. The name is fabulous. The titles are striking. The professor is knowledgeable. The students are fun. You can achieve lots of things in every single session. But I lose track of the topic most of the time. I wish the presentation was energetic and more clear. Once more it was proved to me that the knowledge beyond what you teach is necessary but not enough. It isn't even fitting the 50% of all, say less. A person first should be a teacher and then a professor.
Date published: 2013-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Won Me Over In a series of 84 sprawling lectures, professor Weinstein lays out illuminating insights into the variagated and capacious landscape of American belles-lettres. I must admit that I had my reservations going in. American classics have always held a low priority for me. For some reason, as fond as I am of the great books, American literature has always struck me as a lesser and, at times, embarrassing cousin to its European counterparts. This course helped me to dispel this prejudice somewhat and to appreciate the unique voice of America as experienced in the pages of its greatest books, not in comparison to those of other countries', but solely on the basis of their own merit. Professor Weinstein's treatment of these works was just that good.
Date published: 2013-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from American Literature American Literature was my favorite college class back in the 70's. Professor Howard Hertz' presentations were passionate and poignant. Weinstein bored me at first, with his lackluster readings, asides on political correctness, and dry delivery. But, as background to muse on during my efforts to get actions and emotions on the page in my screenplays, Weinstein's vast knowledge of literary critics, biting insight into the Masters of American literature, and spirited bursts, as rare they may be, won me over. Look past the funny tie, and the silly spectacles he wears too low on his nose, and discover a fine mind and excited boy at heart, who has read some great books and wants to share them with you, and knows how to do it.
Date published: 2012-12-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The real deal on American Lit "We all can remember taking courses in school, where, at some point, you had the feeling "maybe I bit off more than I can chew." When I bought this course, I knew that 84 lectures were going to take awhile. But, so too would reading 84 books, so I began viewing the lectures with the attitude found in the old jab "How do you eat an elephant?... One bite at a time!" I dove in and started chewing. It was wonderful. Professor Weinstein's florid analyses of the classics were like meals in themselves. Each classic's lecture flows onto the next and doubles back to link the major thrust of one work with that of another famous American author. From Ben Franklin and Rip Van Winkle through Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby and , all the way to Stanly Kowalski, Willy Loman and Beloved. From Washington Irving to Toni Morrison and all the famous American writers in between, the lectures connect and reconnect the renowned members of the American canonical text. Professor Weinstein's analysis and insights are so deft and deep you come away from each lecture knowing more about the author, his motives and inclinations, the subtle nuances and meanings of the book, you are left with the feeling equal or greater than having read the book itself. This is the "real deal" in American Lit. You will definitely get your money's worth and you will finish the course, sink into an easy chair and smile the "knowing" smile of a satiated learner. 5 Stars."
Date published: 2012-11-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointed I got this course in particular to learn about F. Scott Fitzgerald and have to say I was very disappointed. I do not agree that Fitzgerald is the "poet of capitalists" - I see" The Great Gatsby" very differently indeed than the professor. And I really do not agree that President Kennedy has been disgraced or fallen from honor in the last (25) years. The media would like you to think so, but I think any intelligent American citizen would agree we would be a lot better off today if he had lived. Would that we would ever see his like again......
Date published: 2012-08-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Stories It took me a while to read all of these stories, but it was well worth the time and effort. Dr. Weinstein did a fantastic job of selecting a set of stories that included the BIG ones (Huck Finn, Moby Dick) as well as including many selections that might not be included in a survey course (Benito Cerano, the Yellow Wallpaper). I enjoyed his lecture style and presentation. While I don't agree with everything he said -- it is tough for me to see a spinster as some sort of "Madame de Sade" -- his enthusiasm for these works was generally contagious. He inspired me to purchase several other Teaching Company literature courses and work my way through them. Thank you for the inspiration.
Date published: 2012-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The course continues long after completion! I completed this long course (84 lessons) several years ago, but failed to write a review at the time. Now, years later, I continue to read and refer to books discussed in this wonderful course. Currently, I am reading Absalom Absalom! by Faulkner and return to the stimulating lectures. My library expanded as a result of this course. The course continues long after completion!
Date published: 2011-11-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! Professor Weinstein is outstanding... elegant in style, well read and informed about the topics he covers, and engaging to listen to - I cannot imagine a better lecturer on this topic! You will feel enriched after listening to him discuss these classics. Cannot recommend highly enough!
Date published: 2011-09-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Everything I wanted and expected was there I bought this course because I love classic literature but have not read all these titles. I figured this course would (a) teach me something and (b) force me to read! Both things have happened. I admit, it has taken me almost a year and I am barely a third of the way through the books (and hence the material), but I am in no way detered from my quest to finish both! The professor is very engaging; you will like his voice and inflection. Sometimes he can dwell on a topic, and sometimes he spends too many lectures on an author, but on balance this course is worth far more than they charge for it. As I mentioned, I first read the book, then listen to his lecture (OK, sometimes I do them in parallel), and the Prof actually provides insight and value. I groaned reading Melville's Moby Dick, but after listening to Weinstein's lectures on the topic, I felt like an idiot for missing some of Melville's theses. If you like the classics--both to read and to study--then you will like this course.
Date published: 2011-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from best professor I have encountered thus far Weinstein makes these books come alive, compels you to read them, or to read them again. He is a master teacher, who, on the strength of this course, drove me to buy another lecture series by him. You can't go wrong with this course no matter what your discipline.
Date published: 2011-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from RICH AND ENTHRALLING This review refers to the CD's. If you are thinking of a straight survey course with this lecture series you are in for a pleasant surprise. True, Dr Weinstein discusses a major list of American fiction writers. But, he does it from his personal taste standpoint which makes these lectures fly by and keeps one riveted to his words. As almost a side bar, he enlivens his comments with reports on where some of these writers stand in the academic warfare over political correctness. My interpretation of limited examples can give some feel for the battle. Hemingway is maybe hanging on. Twain is making a comeback. Faulkner is out, out, out. However, for most of us this is a petty issue to bring up in discussing what these lectures do to enrich one's soul. While occasional writers he discusses may be of limited interest to one, his comments lead to further understanding of the works under review. I'll illustrate with one example. Many critics over the years have claimed that Hemingway's short story, actually two stories, 'Big Two-Hearted River' is one of the most powerful antiwar creations among post World War One fiction. Weinstein doesn't make that strong a claim, but he dissects the language and images in the story to show one the basis of why the critics can make such a claim. This effort, to me, is criticism of the highest order. His comments about all the authors and their reviewed works enrich my memory of reading almost all of them. In fact, I've pulled the book of Hemingway's short stories to reread as soon as I've finished typing this review. For anyone who writes for a living, loves literature, enjoys American fiction, or is a student embarking on college English courses, this series of lectures is a wonderful way to be introduced to some of America's greatest writers. It's also a way to hear or see a gifted teacher share his thoughts about selected examples of American writers' works. Those students at Brown are lucky to have such a professor in their midst. I've listened to the CD's many times over the years. It's one of the best 42 hours of my time I've enjoyed each time. It can't be recommended highly enough.
Date published: 2011-07-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Couldn't get used to the voice That such a renowned professor should have such an annoyingly whiny voice - and should mispronounce words - was surprising and made listening to this a task. The content was good, but, as an English teacher, I disagree with many of his conclusions and interpretations, which he presented as fact. I slogged through it, but I won't be looking for this professor again.
Date published: 2011-06-26
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