Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America

Course No. 2527
Professor Peter Conn, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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Course No. 2527
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  • 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 features approximately 100 visuals, including portraits of bestselling writers from James Fenimore Cooper to John Grisham, historical images and pictures, and on-screen text highlighting key names, terms, and quotations.
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Course Overview

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

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

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

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

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

What Bestsellers Reveal about America

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encounter Moments in American Literary History

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

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

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

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

A Microcosm of American Cultural History

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

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

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

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

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

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Do Bestsellers Matter?
    What makes a book a "bestseller"? In this introductory lecture, explore some of the critical issues involved in a study of American bestsellers—including the effect of literary traditions such as book clubs and best-seller lists, and the insights bestsellers can provide about our nation's cultural history. x
  • 2
    The Bay Psalm Book
    The English-speaking New World's first bestseller, The Bay Psalm Book, was owned by perhaps a third of the households in the small Massachusetts Bay colony. Investigate the work's attempt to provide a literal version of the Psalms and its relationship with Puritan attitudes toward literary expression. x
  • 3
    Common Sense
    This lecture focuses on Thomas Paine's revolutionary Common Sense and how its engaging style reached a mass audience that included both the elite and the common individual. Less than a year after the pamphlet's publication, it was reprinted in at least 25 new editions and sold more than 500,000 copies. x
  • 4
    The Last of the Mohicans
    See how James Fenimore Cooper, America's first best-selling novelist, crafted the formula for subsequent adventure stories and explored serious U.S. themes—including the relationship between settlers and nature and the conflict between whites and Indians—in 1826's The Last of the Mohicans. x
  • 5
    Uncle Tom's Cabin
    More than 150 years after its publication, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin continues to provoke debate and argument. Explore the role this antislavery narrative—which sold 300,000 copies in its first year of print—played in reshaping American attitudes toward slavery. x
  • 6
    Ragged Dick
    Professor Conn looks at Horatio Alger Jr.'s "rags to riches" tale, Ragged Dick,, and its reflection of American ideas of self-improvement. He shows how Alger's best-selling novel presents a moral world of upward mobility, where hard work and merit lead to success. x
  • 7
    Little Women
    The quintessential girls' book of the 19th century, Little Women, serves as a testament to the shared aspirations that can guide a loving family life. Explore how the characters and plot of Louisa May Alcott's novel reflect the larger role of women in post–Civil War America. x
  • 8
    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Find out how Mark Twain's reputation as a cultural icon and the controversy surrounding the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, made it one of the best-selling novels of its generation. Published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn, displayed the versatility of American speech and changed the course of American literature. x
  • 9
    The Virginian
    Owen Wister's The Virginian , was the best-selling novel of 1902. More important, it ushered in the genre of the Western at the moment when the American frontier had closed. Examine how Wister's novel both celebrates and mourns the people, places, and themes of the American West. x
  • 10
    The House of Mirth
    Investigate Edith Wharton's masterful novel The House of Mirth, and the critical questions it raises about social status and gender in early 20th-century American society. An immediate bestseller upon its publication, The House of Mirth, established Wharton as a pointed critic of American high society. x
  • 11
    The Jungle
    Dedicated to "the workingmen of America," Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, was an international sensation that led to groundbreaking reforms in the American meatpacking industry. Explore how this 1906 novel exemplifies both the power of investigative journalism and the ideas of the American Socialist movement in the early 20th century. x
  • 12
    Main Street
    Professor Conn shows how Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, satirizes small-town America as a place of moral and intellectual deficiencies. Considered the best-selling novel of the period between 1900 and 1925 by Publisher's Weekly, Main Street, is a piercing, unsentimental look at American domestic life. x
  • 13
    The Maltese Falcon
    Delve into the popularity of detective fiction among the American readership in this look at The Maltese Falcon,, Dashiell Hammett's best-known novel featuring the memorable detective Sam Spade. In addition, trace the origins and conventions of the mystery genre back to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. x
  • 14
    The Good Earth
    The Good Earth, was the first work of fiction to be a best-selling American novel for two consecutive years. Discover how Pearl S. Buck's tale of Chinese farmers and their families shattered Asian stereotypes, illustrated the role of women in male-dominated societies, and provided Americans with an influential portrait of China. x
  • 15
    Gone with the Wind
    Why did Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, —a novel she described as "a simple yarn of fairly simple people"—achieve such unprecedented popularity? Study how her epic novel provides a unique window into the American South during the Civil War and question the work's controversial treatment of African Americans. x
  • 16
    How to Win Friends and Influence People
    Published the same year as Gone with the Wind, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, is a best-selling piece of success literature that asserts personal appeal as the key to success. Place the book in its historical context and consider various reasons for its long-lasting popularity. x
  • 17
    The Grapes of Wrath
    Consider John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as another example of a bestseller tightly linked with the social values of its time. The unforgettable chronicle of the Joad family as they suffer through the American Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath was among the five best-selling novels of the 1930s. x
  • 18
    Native Son
    The first novel by an African American to be named a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club®, Native Son remains an important work of 20th-century American literature. Explore the origins of Richard Wright's classic novel—as well as its controversial moral attitude that challenges consensual views of choice and justice. x
  • 19
    The Catcher in the Rye
    See how J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, through the unique narrative voice of its teenage protagonist, embodies the tone and issues of 1950s American culture. This 1951 novel can be read in the same vein as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: as a manifesto against the American status quo. x
  • 20
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is another American bestseller that uses the voice of a child as the central character to present piercing views of American society. Investigate how Harper Lee's beloved novel reflects both the development of Southern literature and the maturation of the modern civil rights movement. x
  • 21
    Catch-22
    Study Joseph Heller's influential war novel Catch-22 as a work that emphasizes the cheapness of human life in the face of mechanized destruction and absurd bureaucracy. Also, place this bestseller within the larger context of American war fiction. x
  • 22
    The Woman Warrior
    The first best-selling memoir by an Asian American, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior expanded the literary merit of the autobiography. In addition to looking at America's rich history of autobiographical writing, consider how The Woman Warrior's experimental style offered new avenues for this genre. x
  • 23
    John Adams
    Having sold more than three million copies by the end of 2007, John Adams is the best-selling biography in American literary history. Learn where David McCullough's work falls in the history of American biography and how it reignited interest in an often overlooked historical figure. x
  • 24
    Recent Bestsellers
    Focusing on John Grisham's legal thrillers, conclude the course with an examination of the dramatic transformations in the bestseller landscape over the last few decades. These transformations include the rise of brand-name authors like Danielle Steel and Stephen King and the ways that popular literature addresses new cultural concerns. x

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Your professor

Peter Conn

About Your Professor

Peter Conn, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Peter Conn holds the Vartan Gregorian Chair in English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has a secondary appointment in the Graduate School of Education. Since 1993, he has served as a visiting professor at the University of Nanjing. Professor Conn earned his Ph.D. from Yale University. Professor Conn is the author of numerous works on American literature and culture, including The American 1930s: A Literary...
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Reviews

Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 54.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extraordinary discussions! Each book is thoroughly and clearly examined from a variety of perspectives, including the author's background, the work's historical context, its literary style, genre, and its influence on the reading public, other writers, and the public at large. I made a good choice and if you value literature you will be glad to have access to this invaluable guide.
Date published: 2018-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent presentation Although my interest thus far has mainly been in philosophy courses, the DVD of Prof. Conn is outstanding. My interest in literature goes back to my college days when, as a foreign language major, I elected a wide variety of lit courses. But none of these made the impact that this course has. A wonderful selection of books, a terrific lecturer, a first class entry into the world of great reading. Fantastic! And I've only listened to 12 lectures.
Date published: 2018-05-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The Books that Shaped America I purchased this course so that I could observe it on my computer, but have been unable to have it run. Every other course I've purchased has loaded OK. I have been unable to resolve it through customer Service. I am thoroughly disappointed.
Date published: 2018-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course presented by a talented prof The thesis and presentation of this course is brilliant and it was an absolute delight This series of lectures is truly wonderful and thoght provoking from the first through the final lecture. Professor Conn adopts a truly humanistic approach to his analysis of great American literature, and carefully constructs the hypothesis of how each of the great works studied are reflections of the concerns and cultural themes occurring at the time the work in question was written. In the tradition of the american "liberal arts" academy, Professor Conn uses economic, historical and literary references to frame each lecture and explain how its bestseller status was the result of these multiple moving parts. He also spends adequate time in explaining the literary accomplishment of each work in its own right. One can forgive Professor Conn from including the "The Woman Warrior" as a separate lecture subject, a work that clearly fails to stand with the likes of "Gone With the Wind" "Catch-22" and "John Adams" as a meaningful representative of the bestseller co-hort. My assumption is that Conn's admiration for "The Good Earth" (a book that is the subject of its own lecture and apparently at the heart of Conn's subject matter expertise- he served as consultant to Oprah Winfrey when TGE was selected for her 'Book Club') resulted in its inclusion. "The Woman Warrior", like Pearl S. Buck's oeuvres, is based in Chinese characters and culture. Kudos to Professor Conn and The Great Courses for a sensational entry in the canon.
Date published: 2018-02-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Introduction to American Bestsellers This course gave me the information that I needed to select the books that I wanted to purchase. After finishing the course I chose: Uncle Tom's Cabin, Ragged Dick, The Virginian and The Catcher in the Rye. Professor Conn kept me involved in his lectures. Very interesting and informative.
Date published: 2018-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good overview of the book and of the history of the period.
Date published: 2018-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from THE BOOKS THAT WERE ACTUALLY READ I found this course very useful, even for the books that I had read way back in school. The emphasis is not literary, though some of the books would qualify. You won't find MOBY DICK here (thank god!). It covers books that influenced our culture not just at the top, but through their mass audience. It also covers, in each lecture, many more books than the one in the lecture title. It even made THE CATCHER IN THE RYE seem interesting, a book I found completely incomprehensible when I read it in High School. And it made me put several others on my To Read list.
Date published: 2017-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating content This course has been a joy to listen to. I love literature and to take a look at what was popular during specific time periods in our American history has been enlightening and enjoyable. The courses are presented in a way that keeps your attention and includes tie ins that one would not ordinarily know. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2017-10-23
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