Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature

Course No. 2539
Professor David Thorburn, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Course No. 2539
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Course Overview

Perhaps this has happened to you: You've picked up a great novel—James Joyce's Ulysses, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, or William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! You launch in, ready to discover treasures in this great work of 20th-century fiction.

But the novel is not what you expected. The style is unfamiliar, the narrative is fragmented, and there isn't a clear plot. It's like nothing you've ever read before. If you finish it, you find yourself unsatisfied. What did it all mean? Or perhaps you don't finish at all, and find yourself putting it off until "someday."

Maybe you've yet to attempt one of these great novels. You've always wondered what you're missing, but you know these works are famously difficult, and you've hesitated to start without a guide to help you find your way through this rich but complex tradition.

You needn't wait any longer. Now you can explore this remarkable literary movement and gain insights into the secrets behind Modernism with Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature. With Professor David Thorburn as your guide, you'll see how Modernist authors created new techniques to reflect an increasingly complex post-Victorian world. This tradition includes some of the greatest authors world has known—Joyce, Faulkner, Conrad, Woolf, Kafka. Their works are some of the most challenging—yet rewarding—you'll ever encounter.

Each lecture is accessible and engaging—even if you're new to these authors. And if you've studied Modernism before, Professor Thorburn's perspectives will make you eager to return. Filled with fascinating facts and insightful readings, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature is more than just an introduction to the great writers of the period. With Professor Thorburn's expert guidance, you'll understand why these authors were great.

Modernism Made Accessible—and Compelling

Choosing short but representative novels and stories, Professor Thorburn offers a compelling overview of Modernism you'll find intriguing—whether or not you have time to read the works along with him. Each work is introduced with a full plot summary to ensure that readers from all backgrounds will easily understand the lectures.

Guided by the tenet "trust ourselves and trust the texts," Professor Thorburn demystifies the world of literary criticism and demonstrates how a thoughtful, careful reader can find exciting and enriching insights in these works. You'll examine these great novels and stories from all angles, through close readings of selected passages and illuminating discussions of structure, form, symbolism, and character.

You'll also get to know the authors as people in fascinating biographical facts and anecdotes. Here's a sample of what you'll learn:

  • Although his writing is often held up as a model of English prose, Joseph Conrad was not a native speaker. English was his third language, after French and his native language, Polish.
  • One of Soviet Russia's most revered authors, Isaac Babel briefly worked for the Soviet secret police as a translator. Later he fell out of favor, and in 1940 he was arrested, tortured, and secretly executed by the Stalinists.
  • Vladmir Nabokov was a trained lepidopterist—an expert on butterflies and moths—and discovered several new species during his academic career.
  • At the time of his death at age 41, Franz Kafka had just finished correcting the proofs of one of his final stories, "A Hunger Artist." The story, which recounts the death by starvation of a performance artist, eerily predicted Kafka's own demise: Sickened by tuberculosis, he was incapable of eating and died of starvation.

A skilled storyteller, Professor Thorburn weaves these and more fascinating details from the authors' lives to show how their personal experiences shaped their literary visions.

Finally, you'll view the works of these great authors through the lens of what went before. Using classic texts from previous centuries—the works of Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and George Eliot—Professor Thorburn provides a striking contrast that underscores the boundaries in thought and expression that were crossed as the 19th century gave way to the modern era.

"On or About December, 1910, Human Nature Changed."

No picture of Modernism is complete without an understanding of the forces that helped bring it about. As Virginia Woolf so famously noted, the modern era represented a new way of thinking about humankind and its place in the world. The Modernists lived during a time of innovative breakthroughs and awareness that affected all realms of life.

It was the world of Einstein and Marx, Freud and Wittgenstein. From the theory of relativity to perceptions on the depths of the human psyche, new discoveries overturned time-honored assumptions about humankind.

You'll see how innovative scientific pronouncements called into question old notions about the nature of existence, and how Freudian psychology focused attention on ordinary people and the mysterious psychological forces that compelled them. Stunning ideas about the way the world works—such as Darwin's theory of evolution and Marx's ideas about economics—created a new image of a hostile world order.

How did these forces affect the great artists of the day? What kind of art could capture the newly fragmented, alienated sense of self of the Modern era?

To begin to answer these questions, Professor Thorburn explores the world of visual arts. Examining contemporary works in Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and German Expressionism, he shows how these striking paintings provide an illuminating visual counterpoint to the literary works you'll be studying.

Seeing the World through Modern Eyes

In this context the great literature of the Modernist era will come alive. You'll explore the techniques these great artists employed—stream-of-consciousness narration, fragmented plots, unreliable narrators—that helped capture their sense of uncertainty in a world unmoored from traditional beliefs. And you'll explore the dominant themes of the age—the sense of alienation and nostalgia for an irretrievable past, and the commitment to capturing the experience of ordinary people.

Each author brings unique insights and innovative techniques to bear on this new understanding of the human condition. You'll encounter experimental forms of narrative and you'll see how these authors contend with the fallen idols of an earlier age. From the echoes of Greek mythology in James Joyce's wandering hero of Ulysses to Joseph Conrad's indictment of the European mission to "civilize" the peoples of developing nations in Heart of Darkness, these authors remade tradition to reflect a new, fragmented world order.

You'll also sample the rich variety the tradition holds. For some authors, Modernism represents a bleak vision of human existence, as in "The Metamorphosis," Kafka's dark story of a man transformed into a repulsive insect. But other authors find hope—or at least consolation—within the new order, as in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

You'll meet indelible characters—Conrad's megalomaniac explorer Kurtz and Vladmir Nabokov's mad academic, Kinbote, among others—and you'll travel around the world, from James Joyce's Dublin to Rudyard Kipling's Afghanistan to the crumbling aristocratic estates of the American South.

But the real journey is into the modern sensibility as it was transformed and expressed by some of the world's greatest literary artists. With Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, you'll discover a new appreciation for this rich literary tradition and witness the birth of ideas about life and art that still resonate today.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 1
    Road Map—Modernism and Moral Ambiguity
    In addition to providing an overview of the course, the opening lecture introduces a method of literary interpretation called Formalism, which allows readers to appreciate fiction regardless of their literary background. You'll explore some major themes of Modernism through a reading of John Crowe Ransom's poem "Captain Carpenter." x
  • 2
    How to Read Fiction—Joyce's "An Encounter"
    Using a story from James Joyce's Dub­liners, Professor Thorburn demonstrates how close attention to the text can produce an insightful and valid interpretation. He contrasts this kind of reading to the over-ingenious and grandiose interpretations of some scholars who rely too heavily on evidence external to the text under discussion. x
  • 3
    Defining Modernism—Monet's Cathedral
    Revolutionary new ideas—the theories of Darwin and Einstein; the psychological insights from Freud and James; the philosophies of Marx, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche—provide a powerful intellectual context for Modernism. But perhaps the most central precursor of literary Modernism is the Impressionist art of Claude Monet. x
  • 4
    Defining Modernism—Beyond Impressionism
    If Impressionism anticipates literary Modernism, Postimpressionism exemplifies a break with previous artistic modes. Artists such as Picasso and Beckmann create a new visual vocabulary to commu­ni­cate a profound sense of modern alienation. x
  • 5
    The Man Who Would Be King—Imperial Fools
    Rudyard Kipling serves as a transitional figure between 19th-century certitudes and the Modernist disillusionment. Though many of his most popular works betray a deep-seated racism and faith in the British Empire, his anti-imperial fable The Man Who Would Be King deconstructs the myth of the white man’s burden. x
  • 6
    Heart of Darkness—Europe's Kurtz
    A Polish expatriate, sailor, and English novelist, Joseph Conrad's life exemplifies the Modernist themes of isolation and alien­a­tion. In his masterpiece, Heart of Dark­­ness, Conrad created the character Kurtz, the embodiment of Western civilization, its highest aspirations, profoundest myths, and most depraved violence. x
  • 7
    Heart of Darkness—The Drama of the Telling
    Central to Modernist literature is the idea that each story narrates the difficulties of its own telling. More than just a simple travel story, Conrad's Heart of Dark­­nessexemplifies this obsession with the problems inherent in storytelling. x
  • 8
    The Shadow-Line—Unheroic Heroes
    Conrad's late work, The Shadow-Line, tells of a young sea captain whose failed first voyage is a journey into adulthood. The story serves as an example of many of Conrad's favorite literary devices and themes, including the use of doppelgangers and the antihero. x
  • 9
    The Good Soldier—The Limits of Irony
    Though less renowned than some of his contemporaries, Ford Madox Ford was a prolific writer, an influential editor, and a discoverer of literary talent. In The Good Soldier, he crafted a fable of infidelity that pushed to its furthest extreme a hallmark of Modernism: the unreliable narrator. x
  • 10
    The Good Soldier—Killed by Kindness
    This lecture takes a closer look at Ford's masterpiece of irony and examines how the author uses language and structure to enact the narrator's "drama of the telling." x
  • 11
    Lawrence (and Joyce)—Sex in Modern Fiction
    A striking feature of Modernism is its willingness to confront the nature of sexuality. Through his controversial works, D.?H. Lawrence presents an unblinking view of the complexity of sexual passion, as seen in Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Women in Love. x
  • 12
    "Horse Dealer's Daughter"—A Shimmer Within
    Please note: Parts of Lecture 11 contain some explicit discussion of sexual matters and may be unsuitable for children. x
  • 13
    The Metamorphosis—Uneasy Dreams
    Lawrence's short story "The Horse Deal­er's Daughter" illustrates the continuities between Modernism and Romanticism, both of which celebrate the exhilarating, mysterious, and sometimes dangerous workings of passion and selfhood. x
  • 14
    Dubliners—The Music of the Ordinary
    Through the stories of his native city, Joyce explored the failures and revelations that mark the lives of ordinary men and women. His most accessible work, Dubliners, introduces some of the themes and techniques he would later use in his masterpiece, Ulysses. x
  • 15
    Ulysses—Joyce's Homer
    Joyce's masterwork represents a new kind of fiction that pushes the limits of language. Joyce's retelling of the foundational text of Western literature, Homer's Odyssey, is both an act of respect and of rebellion, an illustration of how we are "modern" and how we are not. x
  • 16
    Ulysses—The Incongruity Principle
    In Ulysses, meaning is constructed by jux­taposing incongruous situations, perspectives, and themes. Through this "incongruity principle," Joyce aimed to dramatize the complicated, often contradictory experience of life in its actual fullness. He attempted to duplicate the way the world registers almost moment by moment in our consciousness. x
  • 17
    To the Lighthouse—Life Stand Still Here
    A prolific writer, perceptive literary critic, and member of the famous literary circle, the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf is now one of the most widely read authors of the Modernist movement. This lecture explores how she sought to capture the experience of life through her art. x
  • 18
    To the Lighthouse—That Horrid Skull Again
    This lecture returns to Woolf's classic novel to take a closer look at its structure and narrative style. Through the story of Mrs. Ramsay and her family, Woolf dramatizes the self as fluid and celebrates the ability to stem the tide of mortality and flux—even if only momentarily—through art and community. x
  • 19
    Isaac Babel—Jew and Cossack
    Ironic, ambivalent, often violent, the stories of Isaac Babel reflect his experience of the brutal anti-Semitism of prerevolutionary Russia. In ironic fables and Red Cavalry stories, he reveals another face of Modernism: affectless, numbed, and precise. x
  • 20
    Isaac Babel—Odessa's Homer
    In his tales of Odessa, Babel teases the reader with the idea of autobiography, but his accounts of the brutal pogroms of his childhood in Russia is more ironic and morally ambiguous than mere self-confession. In his mock-heroic stories about Benya Krik, the Russian-Jewish gangster, he sings, like an ancient poet, of a lost world. x
  • 21
    Faulkner's World—Our Frantic Steeplechase
    William Faulkner's difficult, multivoiced novels demand active collaboration from readers. This lecture describes Faulkner's rich portrait of a fictional Mississippi county. x
  • 22
    Absalom, Absalom!—The Fragile Thread
    Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! synthesizes a variety of genres—adventure, family melodrama, detective novel, gothic novel—and mythological allusions to create a complex "drama of the telling" that is simultaneously a deeply American fable of race, gender, and ambition. x
  • 23
    Pale Fire—Modern or Postmodern?
    In Pale Fire, Vladmir Nabokov creates a complicated parody of scholarship in his portrayal of the mad editor, Kinbote, and a verbally dazzling meditation on the nature of art and creativity. x
  • 24
    The Moral Vision of Modern Fiction
    The course concludes with an overview of Modernist themes, emphasizing the respect for the past these authors shared. A key to their modernity, Professor Thorburn says, is their mission to dramatize the nearly irretrievable complexity of life. x

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Your professor

David Thorburn

About Your Professor

David Thorburn, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. David Thorburn is Professor of Literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the MIT Communications Forum. He earned his A.B. degree from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. Professor Thorburn previously taught in the English Department at Yale University for 10 years. Professor Thorburn is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including Fulbright,...
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Reviews

Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 48.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Overview of Modernity There were a number of great insights in this course, which brought into focus the Modern period of literature, focusing on major works of Joyce, Conrad, Woolf and others from around 1895 to 1930. The course also made connections to other fields that influenced these writers, such as the Impressionist painters. The was a very fun and enjoyable course.
Date published: 2017-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Convinced me to read Woolf Professor Thornburn convinced me to read Virginia Woolf's "To The Lighthouse." And that was followed by "Absalom, Absalom!." The good professor did his job, well.
Date published: 2016-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This will make you want to read, read, read I enjoyed this course so much, I didn't want it to end. The professor is engaging, adds humor, but more than anything....you begin a list of books you really want to read as a result. Classical literature can seem boring, or daunting. This takes the objections away and you discover the bigger themes of life then, that still applies today. Great course, you will enjoy it.
Date published: 2016-01-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Competent - if a tad laboured I have to agree with the criticisms of Prof Thorburn's delivery; he is frequently laboured and hesitant with lots of false starts and repetitions, which do grate somewhat after a while. He has the honesty at least to tell us which critical tradition he follows - the so-called New Critics, who were much in vogue back in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then we've had an array of literary influences, not least Marxist, feminist, |New Historical and post-modern - most of whom Prof Thorburn chooses to cheerfully ignore. What we get instead is a competent 1960's-style overview of the main writers and texts comprising what is generally understood as Modernism. It's OK as far as it goes - but with so many recent ideas and insights ignored, the Prof doesn't always go that far. As I've only seen the first 5 lectures it would be unfair to continue this review. There may be all sorts of gems waiting ahead. So far I am a tad underwhelmed - but we'll see.
Date published: 2015-12-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A truly great course One of the most inspiring lecture courses I have ever come across. Prof Thorburn conveys intellectual delight, humour, insight, civilized erudition and a true love of literature that has convinced me to read almost all the works he talks about. I can't recommend this course highly enough.
Date published: 2015-10-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some Serious Reservations I appreciate that many have found this course rewarding, but I do have a number of issues with Professor Thornburn's approach and presentation. On his approach, he relies heavily on brief autobiography, plot summary, and close readings for plot, character, and what he calls the "drama of the telling.". While this is helpful to a very entry level introduction, I miss the kind of insights which would allow for a strong interpretation of the literary methods, themes, and cultural contexts of the works. Instead, words like "powerful," "complex," "profound," and "of course" and simple descriptions of plot and character often take the place of well-articulated ideas about these works of 20th-century Modernism. On his presentation, Professor Thornburn often stammers over words and regularly digresses to explain something he just said in a disorganized manner, most frustratingly, even in the middle of quoting passages. All in all, the course fell short of my expectations.
Date published: 2015-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tool for Enjoying Life I like to read. I've read for years. Still, there are books I've wanted to read but have put off for one reason or another. Sometimes, the reason is that, bluntly, I've been afraid of them. I'm bothered by the question of my own inability to find the deeper meaning that other readers find. Professor Thorburn handles all of that. The second lecture in this series is his set of directions for reading a story. He makes a distinction between the reader and the professional critic, and stresses that the author writes the story for the reader. This lecture alone is enough reason to listen to this whole series. He begins by relating the authors and their times to other changes attributed to the modernity period. His inclusion of Monet's Cathedral paintings as an example of what was happening in the arts was an unexpected treat. The written works he selected were exciting. Some I've read. Some I've always meant to read and have never gotten around to. And at least one, Ulysses,that I've always been terrified to start. He gives insight into the works through the biographical elements of the authors. Like most of you I have a list of books I intend to read. This course has lengthened my list and given me a tool for selecting a couple to move to the front of the list. His reviews can keep you riveted for the entire lecture series. If he makes a point that your are familiar with, his presentation binds you. If the material or viewpoint is new, that's even better. As he peruses the works, selecting text examples to illustrate his points, the student has to notice how he adheres to the principles he put forth in the second lesson. He interprets the authors meaning in terms of what the author says, and not what he knows about the author from other sources. Refreshingly different from some other lecturers that do impress you with their broad knowledge, but leave you feeling a bit left out. I recommend this course and lecturer wholeheartedly.
Date published: 2015-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An inspiration This is an erudite presentation of early 20-century literature. Professor Thorburn has been teaching this course for a long time and has a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. Whether you have read the books or not, you learn the essence of what the novels or novellas are about. The Professor discusses the authors" lives and experiences and how they are reflected in their works. Tthe books express the complexity of human nature, passions and reactions to certain situations and show how the authors approach situation's. Dr. Thurborn. reads excerpts from the narrations to sow essential points the authors are trying to convey.. The course is well taught and inspires the listeners to read books he/she is not familiar with.
Date published: 2015-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Literature Course I never got to Have I spent about 9 months on the reading for this course, and would never have been able to read some of these works, e.g., Joyce, without the structure to lead me on, and the knowledge that once I got as far as I was going to get, I would get an excellent overview and some real insight from Prof. Thorburn. It also happened that after deciding to stop reading a particular text and move on, I changed my mind after the lecture, and dove in once more. In consequence I have found that my ability to read everything has actually increased. I really appreciated Prof. Thorburn's intensity and involvement with these authors and texts. His role was not to act as a font of knowledge or authoritative interpretation, but to encourage each reader to have their own engaged response. His lectures were always informative, but what I always looked forward to was how a given work affected him--he was very expressive about how a given text affected him without trying to impose his views on his student's. He exemplifies what he urges us all to do: get engaged and feel what these authors are saying, and use that as the basis for a personal response.
Date published: 2015-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic course This was a wonderful cruise through some beautiful, though at times choppy, waters. Thankfully, the captain, Professor Thorburn, was a pro with a deep knowledge of the seas we were traveling. My only previous contact with these writers was when I read Virginia Woolf's beautiful novel, Mrs. Dalloway. After this course, I am looking forward to tackling Joyce and Faulkner for the first time. Thank you, Professor Thorburn!
Date published: 2014-06-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Perhaps too much This is indeed a course for literary types ( the people who actually have read REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST). Others may well find it too much. Too much analysis, angst and theory. Yes Dr Thorburn stutters: but there is no denying his passion for the subject. For those with background, and interest this probably is a great course. For the GREAT UNWASHED rest of us, just too much.
Date published: 2013-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from one of the best literature course I am a great fan of TC Literature courses, especially Weinstein's many lectures. Here however, you have an equal and perhaps better lecturer. The lectures are incisive, clear and focus exclusively on the text making you want to stop the car and read. While these are all difficult works, the presentation is clear, doesn't assume expert knowledge, nor dumb us down and I will come back to them over and over. Of the probably 100 courses I have purchased, this is in the top 5
Date published: 2013-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insight into Some Difficult Texts Professor David Thorburn of MIT provides 24 lectures covering works of Modernist writers Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Isaac Babel, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov. These lectures help to untangle many of the problems often encountered in reading these traditionally difficult writers. Several of these writers could, on their own merits, be the subject of a much longer course. In fact Joyce’s Ulysses is the subject of another 24 lecture Teaching Company course. I wish someone would do the same for the works of William Faulkner! Professor Thorburn is an engaging speaker. On CD he sounds to be speaking extemporaneously, without a written script. For this reason he sometimes stumbles over words as he tries to get his thought across. Some may find this irritating, but I find it tolerable and clearly preferable to those who read their lecture word for word from the printed page. Professor Thorburn has clearly taught this material many times over and has read the chosen texts extensively. He weaves in portions of the writer’s biography when appropriate to highlight themes of the works. It would be best to have read each of the works to gain maximum insight from the lecture. The course focused mainly on shorter works. Reading “The Man Who Would Be King”, “Heart of Darkness”, “The Shadow-Line”, “Horse Dealer’s Daughter”, “The Metamorphosis”, “Dubliners”, “To the Lighthouse”, and the stories of Isaac Babel are clearly within reason. Others like “Ulysses”, “Absalom, Absalom!”, and “Pale Fire” are a bit lengthier and more difficult reads. However, these lectures can be excellent study aids if one should choose to come back later and read these longer texts. Professor Thorburn, like Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, makes reading more interesting and insightful. I recommend courses by both of these men in order to make the most of a variety of otherwise difficult texts. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2013-06-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not recommended owing to poor presentation DVD REVIEW: I could not get past lecture 10, I am deeply disappointed to report. This professor's extreme stuttering, bumbling and nervousness were overwhelming... to the extent that I was so distracted and appalled, I could not follow his presentation properly. Here's one example, from lecture 9, of his speaking style: "But there was already by 1924 a kind of, a kind of, er, er, Conrad, er, uh, uh, uh, a, a, a collection of uh, uh, of, of, of, of, of idolators, er, led in fact by Conrad's widow Jessie Conrad." In addition to his very poor speech, his use of English was weird. Twice in lecture 1 he used the term "attentiveness" when he meant "attention". In another lecture when the word "oblivion" was called for, he said "obliviousness". I have no problem with a New York accent ~~ that was not a factor in this case. His attempt to sing "Rings on My Fingers, Bells on My Toes" was embarrassing. It hurt me to have to abandon this course, for I had been looking forward to adding to my knowledge in an area where, frankly, I am somewhat deficient. However, I could not tolerate the headache and despair that Dr Thorburn's lectures gave me. Additionally, what I derived from the first several lectures was minimal, as he went off on many tangents, did not present a cohesive, structured picture of the authors and works he was considering. I cannot account for the 5-star reviews ~~ unless the professor did a 180 and was astoundingly brilliant in the last 14 lectures!
Date published: 2013-04-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mind Opener I love to read but often struggle with works of complex meaning---I wanted to use the word "hidden" but that's not appropriate as I've learned through this course. The modernists are meant to be read twice or more, certainly more than once as much detail is given late in many of the pieces of this time. Well, there was an "ah ha" moment! No wonder I struggle! It took me a few months to complete this course because I read all the books discussed and others referred to in the course! I loved the entire process with only one sad note---as with all of the Great Courses, it has a last lecture. I've put off watching it because I hate for this wonderful course to end. One note in particular touched me. He sort of pauses and looks into the camera and says (loosely quoted) 'these books are really for you, people who buy Learning Company Courses, you who are life learners". I nearly cried. Someone gets it! Yes, I may struggle but I continue to learn at age 56 and I love it. Thank you for seeing that. Here's an instructor I would love to meet and discuss my thoughts on James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I highly recommend this course. Chris Reich BizPhyZ.com, TeachU.com
Date published: 2012-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional...With a Big Caveat One sometimes forgets that among 5 star courses, some are very good, and some are exceptional. This course, in most ways, is exceptional. The professor believes in formalism, the close reading of texts. This approach is especially beneficial to the student because the core of the lessons is the direct encounter of actual text with deep digging into its structure, its meaning, and its real beauty. There is attention to biographical detail about the authors and their cultural and historical context, but such matters never take center stage away from the literary work at hand. The professor has put considerable effort into constructing these classes from his long and distinguished teaching of this subject. The result for us is a series of extraordinary lectures, each one of which is so fine I'd have been satisfied to see or hear any one of them alone. While there's uniform excellence throughout the course, I do want to pick out the lectures on Joyce, Kafka, and Woolf. They're superb, and, if your taste is to these authors, I want to suggest that you buy this course and match it with Weinstein's lectures on the same authors. TTC has two masters teaching these authors, and lovers of their work should not miss that fact. Here's my problem with Thorburn. He rightly teaches that modern literature is reflective of the art, culture, and history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He brilliantly discusses the powerful and meaningful ways in which this these masterworks advance the art and human understanding expressed in literature. Yet, so committed to those advances, he overly romanticizes their "moral vision" toward the end of the course. In some respects, he makes a strong case. But he largely misses the underside. At its edge, modern writing does, as he notes, put God off to the side. It can exalt the self to heights that border on self-worship. Traditional ideas of heroism and religion are questioned, and understandably so, but, in more cases than the professor acknowledges, they're replaced by nihilism, shredded ideals, and a landscape open to disorder and moral mayhem. If ideas in literature do reflect the culture, all of us must at least explore this other reality, especially as we ponder the grotesque and murderous world that humans created in the decades that followed. God surely seemed more than theoretically absent, and the glorified self surely seemed abundantly present to the many millions of innocents who suffered the horrific death and inhumanity of both World War I and the genocide and Holocaust that brought on World War II. Whether the deconstruction of the preceding order played a causal role in contributing to this horror is certainly a matter for debate, but the professor's silence on modernism that went way over the edge is an unfortunate weakness in an otherwise very fine course.
Date published: 2011-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Know thyself! DVD review. During the 19th Century, Europe’s most respected novelists — Balzac, Flaubert, George Eliot, Dickens and Tolstoy, to name a few — developed a form of storytelling referred to as REALISM by modern critics. Literature, as they saw it, was most accomplished when it held a mirror to society, and described it faithfully and seamlessly in a spirit of optimism. The narrators in these stories were mostly omniscient. The protagonists entertained few doubts about their role in society, the nature of right and wrong, and the bright future that awaited them as long as they faced obstacles with sufficient pluck and energy. Progress was in the air. Villainy was only a temporary aberration. This form of realism still flourishes today in our bestseller and Hollywood blockbusters. Eventually a reaction set in among a tiny minority of writers. Was society really that transparent and fair? What if the narrator was unreliable? Then the horrors of WW I fostered rebelliousness towards anything traditional: old optimism, old s*xual mores, old morality and social structures. Alienation made more sense. Story characters to be credible should be estranged from their community. They should doubt mainstream values and even the true nature of their motives. This new movement is now called MODERNISM, an unfortunate expression as every generation considers itself modern. Dr. Thorburn in his MASTERWORKS OF EARLY 20th CENTURY LITERATURE does a good job of leading us through a short list of writers working within this school in various countries: Conrad, Madox Ford, Lawrence, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf, Babel, Faulkner and Nabokov. His voice is clear and he obviously understands his material. If you have already read these authors, you will probably gain enough new insight to make it worthwhile. But what if these authors are new to you? I fit into that category except for a smattering of Conrad and Kafka. Thorburn made me want to know more, but I must admit that some of his presentations were above my head. I learned to use Wikipedia before each lesson as well as the course guidebook. One thing might repel certain TTC viewers, and it has nothing to do with Thorburn. Modernist novels often seem “self-referential”. By that I mean that the realist 19th Century novels portrayed external reality, often with great skill. They were like panes of glass, illuminating the world around them. Modernist novels, on the other hand, tend to be portals into the artist’s mind where ambiguities and puzzles abound. No matter what they write about, modernist writers become in effect the main topic of their novels. Understanding their works, therefore, requires explanations from critics. To pursue this in any depth, you have to be as interested in the novel as artefact and the novelist as conjurer, as you are in what these works have to say about external reality. So there you go. A good introduction, but only a first step in a literary hall of mirrors. Know thyself!
Date published: 2011-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Surprized and impressed. This course is not what I expected, but once I wrapped my mind around the content I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot and also realized how lacking my knowledge of the modern period of literature was. It was a perfect example of "You don't know what you don't know." I would definitely recommend this course.
Date published: 2011-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not just another anthology I have purchased many of TTCs courses titled "Great Minds of ...", "Great Authors of ...", Great Bestsellers ", "Book That Made History...", "The Writings of ...". Well, you get the idea. I love to read and I love to read about reading. What I noticed first about this course was how Professor Thorburn introduced his topic of 'modern literature' with a discourse on modernism. His first lectures seemed to talk more about modern art than modern literature, but that only served as an introduction to his topic. We needed to understand modernism before we could understand modern literature. Thorburg then discusses his selections with great enthusiasm and knowledge. His choices include some expected titles, "Heart of Darkness", "The Metamorphosis", "Ulysses" and "Absalom, Absalom" and some not expected titles, "The Good Soldier", the "Red Calvary" stories, and "Pale Fire." If you've not read the work before, you can read it with a fresh perspective. If you've read the work before you can re-read it (as he suggests) with a fresh perspective. Enjoy the course, and then enjoy the selections.
Date published: 2011-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from needed knowledge among the 20 odd courses that i have purchased from the teaching co., this class is in a class of its own. i regret that there have been no other classes "performed" by this teacher who is capable of addressing a subject as complex as the transition from the late 19th century to early modernism in such a clear, concise,rigorous and pertinent manner. why is it that there are no subjects in any of the cultural, humanistic disciplines dealing with the early and/or late 20th century , i.e., music(other than the predominant dr. goldberg), art history, etc....?
Date published: 2010-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fine Introduction to 20th Century Literature This short course fills an important niche for persons curious about literature in the first half of the 20th Century. Professor Thorburn -- clearly an enthusiastic expert! -- provides an excellent introduction to this time period. Some of the most famous stories and novels of the era are discussed, but also several works that are not as popular or well known. To make it brief, I thoroughly enjoyed every lecture. The course ended all too soon, and I would like to hear more from Professor Thorburn. Indeed, these lectures only scratched the surface -- clearly the 20th Century could provide endless more examples of great literature. Bravo for an entertaining start!
Date published: 2010-11-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Lecturer - One of the Best Professor Thornburn is an extremely intelligent and enthusiastic lecturer. His knowledge on the subject of modernism is of considerable depth and he clearly presents some of the more abstract elements of the subject in a way that isn't watered down, but is engaging and intelligent. His lectures are on par with the best that I've bought from The Teaching Company. If he did another course for them I would most likely buy it.
Date published: 2010-11-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Modernism from the inside out Prof. Thorburn OWNS this material. His ideas live inside him and simply MUST out when he is lecturing. As I listen to him, I hear a man who knows so much about his material that he can't form his words fast enough to get everything out that he wants to say. That's a good thing for me. His lectures are alive in a way that few lectures are. And at the end of the day, his ideas on each book are entirely coherent and useful. His bubbling delivery simply puts a frisson into his clear presentation. As he acknowledges throughout, these are not easy books. They are not meant to be, and we should not expect them to be. But even a book as formidable as Joyce's Ulysses is worth an amateur's attention. Unlike other guides to Ulysses, who quickly leave me asking why anyone but a Joyce scholar would bother with it, Prof. Thorburn counsels patience and offers many, many practical points of entry that allow someone like me to eat the elephant in small bites, enjoying each bit on its own terms, even if the beast as a whole will ultimately remain beyond my reach. As he says at one point, Teaching Company students are true lovers of literature--real amateurs in that sense--and he seems to have a special affinity for us. He clearly knows the critical literature inside out and presumably participates actively in it. But he speaks directly to us in terms that enrich our ability to love--not just study--modern literature. A key approach he uses--letting books speak for themselves and seeking ways to be receptive to what they want to tell us--is a natural one for a course of this kind. It helped me better understand each of the authors presented. The approach in a way lets me see past the technical difficulties--not to be unaware of them, but to focus on the words themselves and what they tell me rather than becoming hung up in understanding the details of a writer's methods. With luck (we'll see), it will help me be a more discerning reader--a better listener--in the future. A natural question I often ask myself before buying a course of this kind: Does it matter if you have not read the books to be discussed? I got a great deal more from Prof. Thorburn's lectures when I was already familiar with the works he discussed than when I was not. So knowing more than half of these books beforehand enhanced my learning experience. BUT, his lectures are a natural invitation to the books I do not know. And as he points out, because it is almost mandatory to read these books more than once to appreciate them, his lectures offer a head start on new material that I expect to enrich even a first reading when I turn to new books he discussed. And I suspect I will be returning to books I already know. In every case, he offered new ways to understand them that leave me hungry for a return visit.
Date published: 2010-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Would Like More Probably the highest praise one can offer is to say, "I would gladly pay for a second course taught by Professor Thorburn." That certainly applies to me. Thorburn has a real talent for revealing the author and the text in each lecture. His obvious enthusiasm for the material shines through and as I listened it became apparent his ultimate interest was that I understand and appreciate these works. It would be a great idea to create another course where he could more deeply explore other titles by these authors and possibly challenge us with less familiar titles and authors. Again, I would gladly pay to get this second course.
Date published: 2009-12-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Adequate Intro to Selected Modernists Professor Thorburn's course offers a good overview of American and European Modernism, in art as well as fiction. I was not especially impressed with the professor's voice (I bought the audio version), but his presentation is fairly smooth and gets the job done. I happen to like Modernism, and this helped me to enjoy the course. The dark themes of disconnection from traditional values and beliefs, and the spiritual 'homelessness' of humankind intrigues me. Stylistically, artists and writers move away from traditional representational realism and turn inward, exploring 'inner energies,' and struggle to verbalize and paint feelings that are likely (and eternally) beyond language, canvas, and rational thought itself. No small task! I am personally fascinated by the paradox that the Modernists face: they plumb the depths of despair and disconnectedness, yet have to assume we know (as they know) what they have disconnected FROM. They drag the 'from' along with them. There's no true escape: in their non-conformity, they still conform ... to non-conformity. Conformity wins! Professor Thorburn ends with Freud. There's hope for us humans. We must resist the 'flattering delusion' that we are 'uniquely troubled.' And that's good advice for any age.
Date published: 2009-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Solid course Good course and presentation for understanding modern fiction. As a university professor, I find that students have difficulty with many modernist texts. Professor Thorburn does a good job of contextualizing the material and giving insight and analysis. His teaching style is interesting and easy to follow. Although he only gives brief biographical information of the authors the amount is appropriate for this course. Individuals interested in exploring the depths, and ordinariness, of modern writers life Woolf, Conrad, or Kafka with find this course helpful.
Date published: 2009-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent course, pair with Weinstein I was skeptical that I would enjoy a course on 20c lit as much as a course on 19c English or American literature but these lectures are great. This professor's series is a fine complement to the Weinstein literature offerings
Date published: 2009-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful! I love this course. I've listened to/watched many courses from The Teaching Company and I've enjoyed them all, but I think this is my favorite. I hope to see more courses presented by Professor Thorburn.
Date published: 2008-12-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from At first I thought I would return the course, but as Professor thorburn prceded with the lectures I begun to feel that no one else could teach the subject better.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding, I did not relate art until hearing thorbury do it so well!
Date published: 2008-10-17
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