By Chet Yarbrough
Published by: The Great Courses
Lectures by: Professor Peter Conn
Professor Peter Conn prefaces his lectures on “Great American Bestsellers” by noting a bestseller’ label is not necessarily a measure of good or great writing but of popular consumption. Historically, bestseller has meant high purchase volume for a book; usually, higher than expected. In the modern age, a bestseller label is often degraded by publishers; i.e. it is used as a marketing ploy rather than a measure of sales volume.
However, by more accurate measure of popular consumption, Conn argues bestsellers shape American culture, either by reinforcing or changing the direction of cultural norms. The books Conn identifies are American bestsellers because they fulfill two criteria. One, the books Conn selects and reviews are widely purchased. Two, Conn’s bestseller’ selections arguably reflect or shape American’ belief.
Most books Conn selects are well-known today. A few, like “The Bay Psalm Book”, “Ragged Dick”, and (at least to me) “The House of Mirth”, are obscure. Some of Conn’s selections have been reviewed in this blog; e. g. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth”, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”, Each of these books profoundly shape my view of America; partly from personal experience but mostly from an author’s ability to paint pictures of others’ lives.
These lectures are informative. Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century. It became a best seller because it reflected rising discontent with the direction of government. Todays’ political demonstrations offer similar resentment about elected representatives and an election system (now corrupted by money) that Paine railed against when writing about the rights of man.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is another bestseller that moves modern readers with as much force as it did in the 1850s. Conn recounts the apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln’s welcome for Stowe to the White House—“So this is the little lady who started the great war”. (Albeit, an unlikely apocryphal story.)
It is interesting to find that Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is criticized for what might be called “Black Samboing” the last half of the book. In characterization of Huck’s companion, Jim, a runaway slave, the last half of the adventure makes Jim look like “Black Sambo”; i.e. one who shucks and grins rather than seeks freedom and the right to be treated as a human being. Twain seems to covet laughter at the expense of truth. Conn identifies why Twain is a puzzle that confounds critics’ understanding. On the one hand, Twain is a man ahead of his time; on another he is a huckster seducing his audience with stereotypical and offensive characterizations of the poor and uneducated. Twain is an acquired taste; i.e. bitter like beer or coffee that either dulls or sharpens one’s senses.
“Native Son”, the first bestseller by an African-American, is a compelling and brutal picture of the consequences of discrimination. Conn tells of Richard Wrights’ hard life and its lessons; i.e. lessons he writes about in “Native Son”. It is a story of what being Black in America means. Many consequences of Wrights’ hard life are still being played out today.
Nearing the end of Conn’s lecture series, “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston is reviewed. Kingston represents the tradition of the memoir, a vignette of one’s life, as a form of bestseller literature. This is a genre that reflects on the truth of one’s life. It does not demand factual truth but requires personal insight into one’s place in a culture. Conn argues that Kingston ably represents that genre of the bestseller’ tradition in America.
Conn ends his lectures with a review of “John Adams”, written by David McCullough. Published in 2001, it is considered by Conn to be the best biography of John Adams ever written. Parenthetically, Conn notes it is a bestseller that wins McCullough his second Pulitzer Prize.
Though guardedly praising bestseller’ literature, Conn argues that each American author in his lectures provides a window into American culture. Conn suggests there is no surprise that today’s most prolific bestseller’ author is an attorney, an attorney in the most litigious country in the world. Conn’s final lecture notes today’s most prolific bestseller’ authors are–number one John Grisham, two Stephen King, and three Danielle Steele.
In 24 lectures, Conn surveys many of yesterdays’ bestsellers; some of which have outlived their relevance but many that continue to speak “…volumes about the nation’s cultural climate” (a partial quotation from the publicist of the series). Conn’s lectures provide insight and motivation to visit or re-visit books that reflect on America’s past and offer hope for America’s future.