Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America

Course No. 2527
Professor Peter Conn, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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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 58.
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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love this interesting, well-researched course! I love this course! Am a bit more than halfway through, and have learned to much. The lecturer gives interesting background info which puts each of the American bestsellers into context with our country's culture and history at that time.
Date published: 2017-09-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Second part not so great I bought the course to see the comments on Catch 22 really. The rest was gravy. Overall, I accept his choice of inclusions while granting we all have our favorites. He related the books well to the sociology and psychology of the times. My only quibble was his complete inability to smile (or crack a joke or pun).
Date published: 2017-06-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting, but not engaging.. I'm somewhat disappointed in this course. The lecturer talked too fast and did little to make it an enjoyable and engaging learning experience. There seemed to be no attempt to connect with the listener as he seemed to be lecturing to a large crowd (re: the applause). The lecturer's credentials are very impressive, but his delivery was not comparable.
Date published: 2017-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Some interesting choices One expects, for what reason I don't know, that all courses of this sort will confine themselves to fiction, but Professor Conn includes a hugely successful nonfiction book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. His early choices include a political text and the Bay Psalm Book, both of which I knew almost nothing about. There were a few others I knew little or nothing about, but now I have read them. I was interested to hear what the professor had to say about Catcher in the Rye, as I have always found this book boring since the first time I read it as a teenager. But I know that is a minority opinion. This is a terrific view of a bunch of books we should read, and the professor presents them well. I would rate this "not to be missed."
Date published: 2017-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I never had the chance to read any of the American Classics due to my busy career. As a matter of fact, I have not read one book in this course (except Huckleberry Finn, a favorite of mine). So, for my bucket list I decided to try this course and I was more than happy. The professor is an authoritative & superb lecturer and he discusses many more books than the syllabus would indicate He seamlessly integrates the historical times with the books to explain why these books were best sellers. The professor has a rather liberal bent, but that fits into my politics, so that was not a problem for me. I highly recommend this course for the "not-so-literary" person.
Date published: 2016-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from America's soul revealed by popular literature I'm really enjoying the ride through America's most beloved bestsellers as they illustrate the themes and evolution of my country's unique personality. Books I have already read get a novel interpretation of their place in history. Plus I have a new list of books I want to discover in full after hearing this professor's lectures. It's a wonderful examination of the USA's intellectual development through the decades.
Date published: 2016-10-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from More American History than best sellers This course should have been under the American History section rather than the best novel section. I wanted to know why the novels were selected as best sellers as literature not a recap of American History . If you like history, you will like the course's focus
Date published: 2016-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful and Intersting Prof. Conn has done an excellent job. This is a survey course, and he has made good choices. He makes clear a most interesting point: that "bestsellers" are more representative of the times in which they are written than what college professors and the literati designate "great literature". Prof. Conn does an excellent job of placing each work within its social context and relating it to other writings, both influential predecessors and contemporaries, and to its times. He offers interesting insights about each book. Most important, he is INTERESTING. My English teachers, from junior high through college, taught me to HATE literature by choosing 2nd rate material and then forcing us to perform a detailed autopsy on each piece, to find every bit of "symbolism" as if we were searching for tumors, taking a living work and turning it into a corpse. Prof. Conn made me want to read, enjoy and absorb the books he talks about.
Date published: 2015-11-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific professor/terrific course This is a delightful course. Prof. Conn is articulate, even-handed and very easy to listen to, and the course selections are very well-chosen. Each lecture focuses on a particular best-seller - each a significant publication in its own right -- and Prof. Conn does a terrific job of providing background and context for each work while at the same time discussing other works of the same type or from the same period. He tucks in a lot of literary and publishing facts as well as cultural information that help each lecture come alive. Although Prof. Conn does a great job of connecting themes from the various lectures, each lecture is self-contained and does not depend upon the preceding lecture. I listened to the audio version, which was entirely adequate and which i recommend. Like with a good book, I was really disappointed when i completed the last lecture. Top marks for this one; highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course The instructor is very knowledgeable, has a wonderful presentation & a wonderful presentation style. He seems very interested in his subject & projects that interest to his students. The course is very informative.
Date published: 2015-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Strong course This is one of the best of the Great Courses. Prof. Conn presents in a strong manner with a good sense of humor. He provides really interesting context around each of the books making the course both a study in literature and a thoughtful history lesson.
Date published: 2014-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Totally enjoyable experience Professor Conn provides critical literary and social commentary on this list of American bestsellers. He is an engaging lecturer and makes the 24 lectures fly by. Would love to view more courses from this professor!
Date published: 2014-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A good list. Forget the sociology. Audio download. Dr Conn's GREAT AMERICAN BESTSELLERS is a memorable overview of books often neglected in literary circles. He claims they help us better understand the Americans who bought them in such great numbers. I don't take this aspect very seriously. • His selection includes a religious work, a political tract and a self-help classic, all non-fiction works. Yes they all sold well, but mixing these in with fiction muddies his criteria for no good reason. He might as well have included "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" while he was at it. • He avoids novels that were huge sellers in their time if they might bore or offend mainstream readers today. Think of Horatio Alger's many rags-to-riches novels. Mark Twain had contempt for them. But do they not more accurately display the attitude of his contemporaries than "Huckleberry Finn"? Which bestsellers reflect best their time: those that pass away with their readers, or classics that transcend the ages? That being said, I really enjoyed Conn's presentation style. His voice is pleasant and clear. I never felt bored or weighed down by erudition for its own sake. The course guidebook was also excellent. This being an older TTC course, I don't think the DVD version would have added much more. Strongly recommended.
Date published: 2014-07-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thank you I have been stealing more months of pleasure from the Great Courses than I could possibly have paid for over the last 10-12 years. This course reminded me that I owed gratitude to a lot of professors, because of their excellence in one or more areas: choice of material reviewed, engaging presentation(s), providing exposure to several works that I had completely missed, and a chance to measure my own responses along-side his, etc. It is surely inappropriate here, but I am lazy and unlikely to write again so please let me thank several of the many truly excellent professors I have enjoyed thru Great Courses. These include E.Vandiver, M. Wysession, R. Bucholtz, G.W. Gallagher, Liulevicius, and R. Hazen.
Date published: 2014-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course to keep The course is super, recommend this one.But has one flaw I don't know what to make of it,the fact that one author at the end is totally misplace,But this course is my favorite of them all.Its a great course.
Date published: 2014-02-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Literature impacts history/politics Peter Conn's lectures are interesting and informative. He discusses literatures' impact on our world and vice versa. He has an easy listening lecture presentation. (recommend the CD version). My only wish would be that he read more excerpts from each of the books to really get a flavor for each authors' style. That would have made it a 'great' course...
Date published: 2013-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding The subject matter is excellent. Insights about books that I'd heard about for years but never read, and their influence. The presentation is absolutely outstanding. One of the best courses we've viewed (of many).
Date published: 2012-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A POWERFUL WINNER DVD Review: Dr Conn has a real winner here, with this first-class series of 24 lectures on best-selling American books. His first talk is an excellent prologue, setting the stage for the following analyses of individual books beginning with "The Whole Booke of Psalmes" (The Bay Psalm Book), the first book printed in North America, in 1640, only 20 years after the Pilgrim Fathers arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The professor has an ideal manner of presentation: clear, flowing, erudite, well-paced, friendly with a touch of humour, authoritative but not bombastic: no extremes in style. It's a pleasure to learn from a teacher who has no distracting traits or tics, no eccentricity of accent. Dr Conn strategically highlights the reciprocity & significance between bestsellers and social history. I would not presume to criticise his selections for this course, for each of us has favourites, of course, but I am happy to depend on this highly-educated "specialist"; I respect all his choices, including the immensely important "Uncle Tom's Cabin", the world-wide smash "Gone With The Wind", "The Catcher in the Rye", and "To Kill a Mockingbird". The entire series was brilliantly organised, very easy to listen to. I had not read several of the books, so this course was also a welcome education for me. I have to add that I was deeply upset to learn Horatio Alger Jr. (author of "Ragged Dick") was a proven paedophile. Highly recommended course, great value, congratulations Great Courses!
Date published: 2012-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Propedeutic This is the exact type of literature course I thoroughly enjoy. I chose the CD audio format. To give a better reason for my delight I will contra pose this course with another literature course given by Professor A. Weinstein "Classics of American Literature." Undoubtedly a great professor. Even though comparisons may be sometimes odious, it may serve to illustrate my point.: Prof. Weinsteins approach to the topic is a deep analysis of the book many times without giving context , biographical data and most importantly a summary of the plot. His course examines more than 20 or 30 books. As a surgeon I have to do a lot of reading and I don't have the luxury to be able to read many of the books discussed. So I hear a profound and very learned discussion of a book I have never read. Interesting without doubt, but more appropriate for Literature majors in my view. Here is where Prof. Peter Conn shines: he gives a plot summary together with historical and biographical context that , in my opinion, makes a much more satisfying lecture and helps us appreciate more the literary work. The course is excellent . The only reason to give 4 of 5 stars in context is because I would have liked him to discuss many more books. I absolutely recommend it. It incites you to read many of the books discussed. Another excellent professors are Elizabeth Vandiver and Alan Kors who take the same approach. I have completed many many TTC courses in the last 12 years or so and I sincerely hope the TTC will offer more lectures from this riveting professors. Thank you Prof. Conn.
Date published: 2012-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course, Great Presentation I tend towards the science and history courses but I really enjoyed this one. One of my favorites. I am hopeful Professor Conn will make additional courses for the Teaching Company. I could listen to him all day. Well done.
Date published: 2012-08-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Literature on the Lighter Side This 24 lecture course is part social history, and part literature. Professor Peter Conn presents the historical and social context for each of the 22 best sellers first and then launches into a discussion of each work. He does a nice clean job with each lecture - nothing exciting but overall solid work. He clearly has prepared his remarks well and knows his topics. The lectures are easy to listen to and perhaps a little less daunting and academic than other available literature courses. Think of it as literature on the lighter side. I enjoy reading the texts of the works right after listening to the professor’s discussion. Thus, it takes me a while to finish the literature courses that The Teaching Company offers (and some I may never finish). Some of these best sellers are worth reading based on literary merit alone - Huck Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Native Son, and The Good Earth being my favorites. Others are worth a read due to their historical or social significance – Common Sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Main Street, and John Adams stand out here. Others can be short and/or fun reads – The Maltese Falcon, Catch-22, and The Woman Warrior - or are well known works you might enjoy reading through just once, like Little Women or Gone with the Wind. The rest – The Bay Psalm Book, The Last of the Mohicans, Ragged Dick, The Virginian, The House of Mirth, and How to Win Friends and Influence People may not be worth your time and effort to read unless they hold a special interest for you personally. This was a fun course that will be worth the time and effort, especially if you read many of the books. I recommend it for those looking for something a bit less rigorous and demanding among the literature courses.
Date published: 2012-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from From an English Major: Enjoyable I bought this series as a set with Arnold Weinstein's Classics of American Literature. Listening to the courses together was refreshing. Conn's course is lighter than Weinstein's, which just means that you can listen to it in the car, on the treadmill, while walking, etc. I enjoyed Dr. Conn's commentary on the bestsellers and his appropriate focus on the social history that shaped these novels and how the novels also shaped that same history. Although he framed each book within its historical and social context, he refrained from heavy-handed moralizing and from deconstructing the texts through the lens of the nauseatingly guilt-ridden critical social theories that unfortunately comprise so much of current graduate study in English. Unlike other reviewers, I was not bothered by his selections; this was, after all, a course on best sellers, not necessarily great literature, although the two were often one in the same. The course was limited to 24 lectures, so some omissions will occur. That’s not a big deal to me. Dr. Conn is smarter and better informed than I, so he gets to make his selections without my advice, and that is fine by me. As an English major in college, I had read most of these works (but not all of them), and as a public school teacher, I had the wonderful opportunity of teaching both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; consequently, those were my two favorite lectures. In short, I thought Conn was organized, articulate, engaging, and well-informed. I recommend the course, and you don't need the video version. Sometimes, for a course like this, in which maps are not essential for comprehending the presentation, one might be better off getting the CDs; that way, fewer of the authors idiosyncrasies and mannerisms get revealed. Plus, some people are just way too picky. I enjoyed this course, and I think anyone else would too . . . unless, that is, you are hypercritical.
Date published: 2012-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More than just literature This excellent course is very difficult to classify. Besides giving an excellent introduction to American popular literature it also provides a very interesting social history of the USA. I really enjoyed both aspects of the course and would thoroughly recommend it.
Date published: 2012-02-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Popular literature and our American identity DVD review. While the DVDs are not necessary, I enjoyed the images and the quotes. Many customers will certainly be satisfied with audio. The more books on the list that you have read, the more this course will appeal to you. Incidentally, there’s a decent balance between related history of the period and the literature under discussion, so if you like history you might enjoy this one, too. This one started out a bit…um…measured but half way through really started offering some material worth serious analysis and reflection. The books are all well known but vary in quality according to critics. Also covers quite a few genres: classic novels, mysteries, westerns, religious/political, teen literature, memoir/biography, etc. For sheer variety, it’s admirable; from a historical perspective, it is also very strong. At first I found Professor Conn to be solid but unremarkable. Then during the lecture on Gone with the Wind, he blushed while narrating a spicy, Harlequinesque quote and then sort of came alive, delivering his next lectures with more personal investment; for example, in introducing Catch-22 we hear a anecdote about losing his passport. Towards the end of the lecture I could tell he just about started laughing, so he must have had fun. Also, he excels at reading quotations. All are brief and economical but very powerful. Furthermore, he also does a very competent job of weaving common threads together so you get a sense of continuity and cohesion. As to the books, they’re all bestsellers, so what’s not to like? Many are typical books you’d find on mandatory high school reading lists. That made it easy to connect with the much of the material, which in my case brought back memories. Most of us have probably read a lot of them. But here’s the rub: best sellers are not always high brow reading experiences. Quite a few have been disparaged by critics as being flawed in our postmodern sense (Part III of Native Son; Grapes of Wrath as anti-American; Huckleberry Finn being inflammatory; Gone with the Wind amounts to racial propaganda; The Good Earth is conventional; Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes across as overly sentimental ; Last of the Mohicans is now obsolete; etc.). Don’t know if I’ll watch the whole course again, but I do want to reread or read for the first time a few of the books. Those lectures I will definitely watch again. So, it’s a pretty solid course and will competently round out your knowledge of any of the books you have not gotten round to reading yet.
Date published: 2011-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Audio lectures are very well performed These lectures exceeded my expectations. The books were well chosen and given in a historical order that combines literature, history and politics. The value for the course was the professor talked about the social and political events that impacted or were caused by the book itself. The professor did not give book reports about each novel. Instead, he put the novel in the context of the times it was published in. He discusses other books that i'd never heard of that were also well written, but lost the contest of being remembered by most readers. The professor also speaks at a fast clip, which i prefer. He keeps the info flowing, and it's all interesting.
Date published: 2011-10-18
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