By Chet Yarbrough
Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America
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 by me in the past; 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 (likely untrue) story of Abraham Lincoln’s welcome for Stowe to the White House—“So this is the little lady who started the great war”.
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 reflects a characterization of Huck’s companion, Jim, a runaway slave who compels Finn to choose between what is morally or legally right. 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 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.
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).
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