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Saturday, November 3, 2012

This Week in BAM History: The Shocking World of the Novel

William Lyon Phelps. Photo: William Vandivert
In 1892, a 31-year-old Yale instructor shocked the academic community when he offered a course on the modern novel. As the news of the course taught by the young William Lyon Phelps rippled beyond the ivory tower, The New York Times (according to a BAM program from 1940) published an editorial denouncing Yale for offering “instruction of such a frivolous and vulgar character.” Though Phelps’ course, which examined novels by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Leo Tolstoy, was one of the most popular at Yale, the college pulled the plug. After receiving a rush of publicity, Phelps was inundated with requests from around the country to lecture on the modern novel. A few years later, Yale, seeing a rising star in its midst, asked Phelps to resume his course under its auspices, and he was offered a full professorship. It was one of the first steps taken toward the development of the modern English department.

Forty-eight years later, in 1940, Phelps had retired from Yale, though he was still in high demand as a lecturer on contemporary literature. On November 3rd, Phelps offered a lecture entitled “Contemporary Books Worth Reading,” which was in fact part of a series of lectures Phelps gave at BAM periodically, starting in the late 1920s. Here is the list of books discussed, from the program:

It’s an interesting list to consider 72 years later. Agatha Christie was already well established by 1940, and certainly she’s the one who has held out the longest—in large part due to Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver stories were widely circulated in newspapers across England and the US at the time, and they’re still studied. Boxer Jack Dempsey was retired at this point, but still very much in the public eye. Two of the other books were by accomplished cultural figures: Nicholas Murray Butler was the longtime president of Columbia University, and Laurence McKinney was a popular humorist. While novelists Nevil Shute and Percival Wilde were widely read at the time, they aren’t so much today (though their names are still lurking around the web). H.H. Curran, however, seems to be nearly forgotten.       

It makes one wonder what will come of today’s most popular writers, along with the loads of books written by prominent cultural figures, 72 years from now. Will Danielle Steel’s work live on via some sort of media transformation, à la  Agatha Christie’s Poirot? Will people curious about early 21st century America bother looking at Obama’s The Audacity of Hope? Will our current interest in David Foster Wallace become an academic industry? Or will the web replace books altogether, and books become fetish objects for antiquarians?

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