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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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
    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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Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 62.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent information The professor was excellent. I enjoyed the history and time periods discussed during each selection. Great chronology.
Date published: 2020-11-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This Course Deserves To Be a Bestseller Dr. Peter Conn presents more than just scholarly and compelling analyses of renowned books and the accomplishments of their authors. He also teaches a great deal about American literary genres and changing historical and social contexts from the early 1600s through the present day. His twenty-four engaging lectures remind me of the best on any subject that I have personally enjoyed attending at several colleges and universities. This easy-to-listen-to lecturer is logical and well-organized. The professor’s wardrobe and gestures, as well as the uncluttered studio decor, are dignified and non-distracting. Not surprisingly, the bestsellers considered great tend to illustrate societal relevance, impact, and poignancy, though Dr. Conn always does his best to emphasize positive values and progress. One minor disappointment is that “spoiler alerts” aren’t announced when some book endings are about to be revealed. Dr. Conn’s critical assessments are even-handed. He explains what is commendable and what is unappealing about featured books, fictional characters, and writers. He seems to be both frank and compassionate as a reviewer, with his wit and ethical consciousness apparent as additional strong suits. Insightful comparisons and contrasts are regularly made to contemporaneous books during each discussion. Lecture #8 on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” #13 on “The Maltese Falcon,” and #20 on “To Kill a Mockingbird” are some of my favourites. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2020-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great American Best Sellers This course was a great overview of several best selling books and the history and culture behind them. Professor Conn is interesting and thorough in his discussions. I have read some of the best sellers discussed in this course prior to purchasing this course and was looking for a refresher on the content of those books since it has been decades since reading them, I was provided with more...a desire to explore and learn more about some of these best sellers and to go back and read "The Jungle" again. Professor Conn's insightfulness keeps me on my path of staying a life long learner.
Date published: 2020-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So Much More... (This course is an adventure in learning, not just about a few great books, but, also you learn about the people who wrote the books, what was going on around them and so much more. One of the best examples is...) 'The Puritans produced just two poets, one was Anne Bradstreet, who wrote "The Tenth Muse" (1650), while theologically correct, the text revealed a passionate and intelligent woman. The second poet of importance was Edward Taylor, who was not discovered and published until the 20th century. The most successful as opposed to good, was a minister named... Michael Wigglesworth, the author of the poem called, "The Day of Doom" (1662). Which is about Christ's second coming and condemnation of the world and evil people.... "Mean men lament, great men do rent their Robes, and tear their hair: They do not spare their flesh to tear through horrible despair. All kindreds wail: all hearts do fail: horror the World doth fill with weeping eyes, and loud out-cries..." The book is made up of 254 stanzas of this sort of verse... including ridiculous and idiotic references to Christ's judgment on infants, in that they are LESS evil than others who lived longer.' (There may be some paraphrasing here - not exact quoting) "All this may sound absurd to us... or at least I hope it does." ~Professor Conn ... Comparative literature... The king James version vs. the Puritans version... The king James Bible: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." ~ 23rd Psalm - kjv ~ ~ ~ Bay Psalm Book: The Lord to me a shepherd is, want therefore shall not I. He in the folds of tender grass, doth cause me down to lie: To waters calm me gently leads. Restore my soul doth he: he doth in paths of righteousness: for his name's sake lead me. Yea though in valley of death's shade I walk, none ill I'll fear: because thou are with me, thy rod and staff my comfort are. ~ 23rd Psalm - bpb "These are the consequences of approaching the psalms as scripture rather than poetry. The kjv has invaded our language with such things that we no longer realize the source.... 'sweeter than honey', 'whiter than snow', 'my cup runneth over', 'the heavens declare the glory of God'... No such list could be compiled from the Bay Psalm Book!" ~Professor Conn ~~~ (And I laughed when I learned where the following phrase originated and understood why it was said in the first place...) ~~~ "The journalist and critic H.L. Minkin memorably defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.'" ~~~ (For once I finally understood why the kjv was my favorite translation of the Bible, it has always honored the beautiful Hebrew poetry/language - and it remains beautiful to this day, whether you a believer or not - it is still undeniably expertly and beautifully translated poetry. It has inspired untold millions of people all over the world to believe and hope - like no other words ever written before. This is all just a small sampling of what is contained in these lectures which I have enjoyed and will close this little review with another quote that was shared in this series...) ~~~ "Hindsight is always misleading, perhaps never more so than in the case of the American Revolution. Nothing that happened was inevitable, everything could have turned out differently. As the British novelist Lesley (L.P.) Hartley once remarked... "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." ("The Go-Between" - 1953)" ~ Professor Conn
Date published: 2020-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Literature As A Window Into Knowing About America This is the 6th course I have completed in the Great Courses. It is one of the better courses I have heard, so far. Professor Conn is very insightful, prepared, and well spoken. I bought the audio, and Professor Conn has a good, strong speaking voice without any distracting mannerisms and is easy to hear and understand. The books that he has chosen are interesting and varied. It seems that he went to great efforts to choose the bestsellers that would be representative of the time period in American history that would reflect accurately on that era of time in our history. The books are not all the same of variety or type. You learn a great deal about American history while going through this course, which I appreciated a lot. About half of the lecture is giving historical background or context for the book discussed, and the other half is discussion of the book itself. There are times Professor Conn gets off topic a bit though. In his lecture on the bestseller "John Adams" he spends quite a bit of time telling us about George Washington and the legends that grew up about Washington. He does this, so he can compare Adams to both Washington and later Thomas Jefferson, but maybe telling us a little more about John Adams himself would have been more insightful than these stories of Washington that most people already have heard. Professor Conn also annoys a bit with his insistence on chronological snobbery, in his lecture on "Last of the Mohicans" he claims that the Native Americans are stereotyped and presented at times in an unflattering manner. In the lecture on "Gone With The Wind" he denounces Margaret Mitchell for her racist views. In these politically correct times, we understand that these attitudes are unacceptable today. For him to pass judgment looking back on the times, in hindsight, seems sanctimonious. Overall the lectures are very well presented and enjoyable to listen to. His comments are insightful and he knows his literature well.
Date published: 2019-08-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great content. Poor packaging with 4 dvd's on one Professors delivery and course content were excellent. Stacking 4 dvd's on one spindle does not insure best treatment or longevity of the dvd's.
Date published: 2019-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from American history and culture through literature This course is already ten years old, but I have just now discovered it, and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. I look at it as an unusual lens through which to examine American history and culture. Professor Conn discusses about two dozen American “bestsellers” from colonial days to the early twenty first century. Through them he gives us an insight into the society that produced them. About half of each lecture is devoted to the historical and cultural background in which the book was written. Most are novels, but he includes biography, memoirs, and at least one political treatise. Many are books I have read in school and are familiar at least by name and topic to every literate American. A couple are ones I had never heard of and were included, I suspect, as a nod to diversity. The definition of bestseller is, after all, rather elastic. Professor Conn’s discussions are clear, well organized, and well presented. I recommend this course to anyone interested in American cultural history.
Date published: 2019-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Far More Than It Appears to Be I purchased this course to acquire a better understanding of the books being reviewed. Turns out the course does far more than simply review the books and their authors, it is a genuine, intriguing and very enlightening walk through history. Should you love books and history, as I do, this is an excellent course to purchase.
Date published: 2019-05-30
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