American Literature – a Six-Part Course for Curious Minds | How To Academy


Thu, 25 May 2023

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American Literature – a Six-Part Course for Curious Minds

Sarah Churchwell

From Mark Twain to Toni Morrison, the geniuses of American letters have not only reflected but profoundly shaped the national character, leaving an indelible mark on global culture.

A poor white boy and a runaway slave flee the Antebellum South on a precarious raft.  

A mysterious young aristocrat hosts wild parties every Saturday night in his Long Island mansion with the hope of seducing an old friend.

A mother kills her daughter so she will not be enslaved, only to be haunted by the baby’s ghost.

No lover of storytelling can escape the pull of American literature. Whether we have read them or not, the greatest American novels have seeped deeply into our collective consciousness.

Effervescent, energic, poetic and seductive, as rich in variety and conflict as the nation itself, the great novelists navigate the big themes at the heart of American life – race, power, freedom, capitalism – in ways that subtly transform both the literary art form and American identity itself.

A scholar of American literature and an expert communicator able to effortlessly capture the nuances of big ideas, Prof. Sarah Churchwell joins How To Academy as a guide to six of the most influential authors in the American canon, revealing what the classic works of the 19th and 20th centuries still have to tell us in the 21st.


Week 1: Mark Twain – Huckleberry Finn

All right, then, I’ll GO to hell.

Banned from many US libraries on its publication in 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has remained as controversial ever since – but for different reasons. In the meantime it also become hailed as a classic, the book Ernest Hemingway later credited with inventing modern American literature. What appears to be the comic adventure story of a backwoods boy traveling with a runaway slave turns into a quest for the moral role of the individual in a society that justified enslavement.

Week 2: Willa Cather – My Ántonia

That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Celebrated as the first novel to render the reality of life on the Great Plains, Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia announced her as a major talent, and she continues to hold a huge influence over every writer who seeks to depict the frontier pioneer experience. Many novelists aspire to create a sense of place that is as vivid, compelling, and acute as any protagonist; Cather is one of the rare few who succeed, redefining the American epic along the way.

Week 3: F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

As he began drafting The Great Gatsby in 1923, F. Scott Fitzgerald informed one critic he knew that it would be ‘the great American novel’. A century later Fitzgerald’s tragic, satiric, elegiac masterpiece routinely tops lists of the greatest American novels ever written. What makes this brief novel about an adulterous love affair – and about dreams, disillusionment, money, and power – among the super-rich in jazz-age New York so transcendent?

Week 4: Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

As much known for his love of danger and adventure as his hugely influential ‘Iceberg’ theory of literature, Hemingway was wounded by shrapnel in the first world war and led a militia band in the second. A thinly disguised portrait of the lives of the Lost Generation expats in Paris, The Sun Also Rises is a tale of love, sex, illusion, fidelity and betrayal that perfected the minimalist style of implication that would later earn him the Nobel.

Week 5: Zora Neale Hurston– Their Eyes Were Watching God

There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.

A student of anthropology and folklore, Zora Neale Hurston was one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance, who set out to celebrate and safeguard African American culture on its own terms. A novel written in dialect that challenges patriarchy and the violent imposition of gender roles, Their Eyes Were Watching God was forgotten for decades after its 1937 publication, but is now considered one of the greatest twentieth-century novels.

Week 6: Toni Morrison – Beloved

“Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

Inspired by a true story, Beloved chronicles the traumatic legacy of slavery in the life and memories of Sethe, for whom freedom does not bring liberation. Imprisoned by her past, haunted by a ghost, Sethe must confront the memories of violence inflicted upon her and those she loves. Widely considered Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved helped Morrison become the first Black woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Sarah Churchwell

Professor of American Literature

Sarah Churchwell is Professorial Fellow in American Literature and Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of The Wrath to Come: Gone With The Wind and the Lies America Tells; Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby and The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, as well as many scholarly articles on American literature. She was co-winner of the 2015 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award and longlisted for the 2021 Orwell Prize for Journalism. She lives in London.