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American Bestsellers

ENGL 593.301

Scholar William St. Clair has recently argued that literary history should attend to "books that were actually read, and were admired in their generation." Some years ago, Cary Nelson made a similar assertion: "We should take it as axiomatic that texts that were widely read or influential need to retain an active place in our sense of literary history, whether or not we happen, at present, to judge them to be of high quality." In short, bestsellers can enlarge our understanding of the reach and range of the American literary imagination, and perhaps illuminate our complex national past into the bargain.

Testing these hypotheses, the course will take up a sequence of best-selling American novels, beginning with James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick (1868), Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1870), Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (1920), Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth (1931), Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936), and Richard Wright, Native Son (1940). The final few selections, from postwar and more contemporary bestsellers, will be made in consultation with the class members.

Along with close examination of each text, we will also attempt to identify the connections between the novels and their social and political contexts. We will engage a number of questions in the course, including the difficulties in defining bestsellers, especially for novels published before the second half of the twentieth century; the venerable debate about popularity vs. quality; the role of marketing and publicity in the production of bestsellers; and the continuities and changes in American bestsellers over nearly two centuries.

Requirements will include: (1) two oral reports, the first on one of the novels in the course, the second on some aspect of the growing scholarly literature that addresses the general questions raised by bestsellers; (2) a research essay of twenty pages, due near the end of the term. Detailed instructions with respect to these requirements will be distributed at the first class.

Undergraduates need to fill out a permit form and receive the approval of the Graduate Chair, their advisor, and the professor for all 500-level courses. PLEASE NOTE THAT THERE IS AN UNDERGRADUATE CROSS-LISTING FOR THIE COURSE (ENGL286:301)

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