Great Courses: Great American Bestsellers – The Books That Shaped America
12 weeks | Mondays | 10:00am | No Charge
Nov 7, 14, 21, 28; Dec 5, 12, 19; Jan 9, 23, 30; Feb 6, 27
Course Facilitator: David Williams
Pre-Registration Required | Capacity: 20
The course consists of 24 lectures on American Bestseller books (two lectures per class). It is not necessary to read each book, but of course you may do so for added understanding of each book.
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.