The great American novel
“I need your help,” said guest professor Lawrence Buell in his first of four lectures of the new annual Oberlin Lecture Series in English and American Literature, sponsored by the English department. “I am a soul in progress engaged in a work in progress. Sock it to me and give me the feedback I hope to receive.”
Buell, a former Oberlin English professor now teaching at Harvard University, delivered a series titled, “Master Narratives from Settlement to Empire: The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel.”
Nicholas Jones, English department chair and chief coordinator of the lecture series and corresponding mini-course, opened for Buell, referring to him as “a real literary historian in a deep way...someone who’s really interested in the broad tapestry of texts across a time period.”
This semester’s inaugural lecture series was delivered by Buell in four separate installments on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. It covered the work of a variety of novelists, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Toni Morrison, and placed the works of these authors in their historical contexts.
At the opening lecture, Buell imparted a brief history of the concept of “the great American novel” through numerous anecdotes, rich metaphors and close analyses of texts. He also provided a synopsis of the direction the rest of the course would follow.
Over the past two weeks leading up to the corresponding mini-course led by Jones, about 25 students have read four selected novels and attended discussions facilitated by Oberlin English professors. Jones reported that students have been very enthusiastic about the material.
“I really liked the last lecture – it was really funny. I’m kind of an English nerd, so I like his English jokes,” said college sophomore Meghan Donnelly. She added, “I also liked that he taught at Oberlin. He seems to have an affection for Oberlin Students.”
Buell has been a member of the Harvard English department, where he recently stepped down as the chair, since 1990. Before that, he taught at Oberlin for nearly 25 years. At Monday’s lecture, he said, “Harvard is a place of wonderful academic experience; Oberlin was a cause.”
“This is an idea that has been kicking around in my mind for a decade,” said Buell of the lecture, upon which he plans to base an upcoming book. “I knew I wanted to create something in long form on the topic. The invitation to deliver this lecture had a real catalytic effect on my work and priorities.”
Jones, along with the entire English department, hopes that this inaugural lecture series will be the start of a long-lasting yearly event.
The department has already arranged to bring in Helen Vendler, a critic of
English and Irish literature, as the next speaker in the series in the fall.