Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Classics Of British Literature: Part 2

Great Courses:  Classics Of British Literature, Part 2, taught by Professor John Sutherland

I must admit that I found this particular part of the course to be somewhat disappointing.  To be sure, not all eras of British literature, nor all tastes on the part of instructors, are to everyone’s liking, but I must admit that I am more susceptible than most people are to a concern about politics and its role on literature.  And sadly, this part of the course is heavily involved with questions of politics on a large scale, relating to questions of religion, race, and gender and their relationship with literature.  Given the general criticism I have for this relationship between politics and literature [1], it is totally unsurprising, I suppose, that this part of the course would be far less enjoyable than the previous one was, where I at least had a great deal of fondness for the people that the professor viewed as important writers even if I found much wanting about the author’s approach.  Here I did not even have the consolation of enjoying most of the people that the author was talking about, nor considering them genuinely major voices in British literature.

This part of the course begins with a discussion by the author that turmoil makes for good literature, by which the author means the time of the English Civil Wars and their aftermath.  While it may be true that turmoil makes for good literature, it also makes for the sort of salacious drama that the author appears to appreciate even more, regardless of whether he appreciates Puritan writers or their rakish Restoration rivals.  After this the author looks at Augustan poets like John Donne (but strangely not Cowper), reveling in the sexuality as well as the wit of their poetic works.  After that the professor looks at Swift’s anger and insanity, the wit of his works, and the Irish question.  Then a look at Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and other writings provides a chance for the author to praise order as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of authors making it without depending on aristocratic patrons.  The writing of Daniel Defoe provides the professor to pontificate on the perspective of imperialism as well as the development of the novel and the way that many early novelists were journalists.  A lecture on Behn allows the author to look at the question of women in writing, as do a few “minor” female poets including Elizabeth I of England (!).  A discussion of the “golden” age of fiction allows the professor to look at the approach different people had to the novel concerning realism and morality.  Other lectures look at Wollstonecraft (more feminism), Blake (romantic poetry with a high view of the Devil as a force for creation and advancement), Equiano (a chance for the instructor to lecture about the evils of slavery), and Gibbon (a look at the rhetorical power of Gibbon’s atheistical writings).

Again, this is a course that is likely to disappoint those who value literature but are sensitive to the worldview of the people who create it.  Much of the literature discussed here has not aged well except when it comes to serving as grist for the mill of those who would engage in the celebration of various purported subaltern groups.  It is pretty clear in looking at this section of the course that it is not the greatness of literature, of which at least some of it can be seen, but rather the political importance of literature that is of most importance to the instructor.  This is, lamentably, a problem with a great deal of instruction in writings.  Of course, what is vital and important literature depends a great deal on where one stands.  Given my own perspective, a lot of these works just seem like special pleading being given praise simply for being passionate appeals for justice for some sort of group that felt that they were not getting a fair shake, not something worth appreciating for the quality of its writing.  As someone who does not tend to value literature for who says it but rather for what it says, this age is definitely one whose value fails to meet a genuinely literary standard of excellence, whatever may be appreciated about its diversity.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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