Mohammed and the Arab Conquests

In this lecture, Professor Freedman at Yale University introduces Islam. He begins with a discussion of its geographical context: the dry desert lands of the Arabian peninsula. The Bedouins, or nomadic Arabs of the region, lived in a tribal society somewhat similar to the Germanic tribes discussed earlier in the course. Their raids against the Byzantine and the Persian Empire, for lack of strong opposition, would lead to the Arab conquests. The second half of the lecture focuses on the life of Mohammed (570/580 — 632) and the early years of Islam. Mohammed’s revelation was one of the unity of God and a progressive interpretation of God’s prophets, with Mohammed as the last of these. Early Islam was slow to differentiate itself for Christianity and Judaism, though this process accelerated after Mohammed’s flight to Medina in 622. Professor Freedman ends with a discussion of the tenets of Islam and anticipates the discussion of the Arab conquests in the next lecture.

Edward P. Jones, The Known World

In this lecture on Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, Professor Hungerford at Yale University begins from the novel’s title, asking what counts as knowledge in the novel and why knowledge is central to the story. This leads to related questions: who is a knower, and what can be known? Highlighting several different versions of how knowledge of the past is communicated through storytelling within the novel, she draws distinctions between Jones’s model of historical knowledge and that of other writers on the syllabus. Professor Hungerford suggests that Jones revives a nineteenth-century form of the novel when his narrator takes on a God-like omniscience, but unlike the nineteenth-century novel’s narrators, Jones’s omniscient narrator provides little in the way of God-like consolation.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

In this lecture on Blood Meridian, Professor Hungerford at Yale University walks us through some of the novel’s major sources and influences, showing how McCarthy engages both literary tradition and American history, and indeed questions of origins and originality itself. The Bible, Moby-Dick, Paradise Lost, the poetry of William Wordsworth, and the historical narrative of Sam Chamberlain all contribute to the style and themes of this work that remains, in its own right, a provocative meditation on history, one that explores the very limits of narrative and human potential.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

Professor Hungerford at Yale University situates Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (1980) in a tradition of American writing about the individual’s relationship to nature that includes the powerful influences of the Bible, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The loss of identity that Emerson describes as becoming a “transparent eyeball” in the woods, Robinson brings into the realm of the home, the built environment. The individual voice and its guiding consciousness are all mixed up in the material substance of the world, giving them a concurrent fixity and fragility that it is Robinson’s talent, and our challenge, to explore.

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

Professor Hungerford at Yale University draws a contrast between Toni Morrison and most of the writers studied up to this point in the course by pointing out how, for an African-American woman writer in particular, language is a site of violence. For all of her power to recuperate the voices of the oppressed, the novelist must be wary of the ways that breaking the silence, too, can constitute an act of invasion. As in the case of Pynchon, the word in The Bluest Eye enacts a near-physical touch; this is its pleasure and its danger. With inimitable complexity and grace, Morrison weaves her narrative around a young black girl who, in the void of her social persona, constructs a beautiful and poisonous fiction.

J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

In this lecture at Yale University on J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Professor Hungerford presents her argument about religion in the novel as an example to students of how to construct a sound literary critical paper using evidence from the text. Moving between large claims and close readings, Hungerford shows how Salinger prevents his investment in mysticism from becoming mystification by grounding his sense of the divine in the specificity of persons, the importance of family language and love. In this way writing, like the theme of acting that appears again and again in the novel, models a spiritual performance that brings together artist and audience in the partnership of human communication.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Professor Amy Hungerford’s lecture at Yale University on Kerouac’s On the Road begins by contrasting the Beats’ ambition for language’s direct relation to lived experience with a Modernist sense of difficulty and mediation. She goes on to discuss the ways that desire structures the novel, though not in the ways that we might immediately expect. The very blatant pursuit of sex with women in the novel, for example, obscures the more significant desire for connection among men, particularly the narrator Sal’s love for Dean Moriarty. The apparent desire for the freedom of the open road, too, Hungerford argues, exists in a necessary conjunction with the idealized comforts of a certain middle-class American domesticity, signaled by the repeated appearance of pie.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Professor Amy Hungerford at Yale University introduces the first of three lectures on Nabokov’s Lolita by surveying students’ reactions to the novel, highlighting the conflicting emotions readers feel, enjoying Nabokov’s virtuosic style, but being repelled by the violence of his subject matter. Nabokov’s childhood in tsarist Russia provides some foundation for his interest in memory, imagination, and language. Finally, Professor Hungerford shows how Nabokov, through the voice of his protagonist Humbert, in his own voice in the epilogue, and in the voice of “John Ray, Jr.” in the foreword, preempts moral judgments in a novel that celebrates the power of the imagination and the seductive thrill of language.

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

Professor Amy Hungerford’s first lecture on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood addresses questions of faith and interpretation. She uses excerpts from O’Connor’s copious correspondence to introduce the critical framework of O’Connor’s Catholicism, but invites us to look beyond the question of redemption. What do characters see in this text, and what are they blind to? What do we see as readers, and how does methodology shape this vision? It’s a literature lecture at Yale University.

A Person in the World of People: Self and Other

This is the study of how we think about ourselves, other people, and social groups. Students will hear about the famous “six degrees of separation” phenomenon and how it illuminates important individual differences in social connectedness. This lecture at Yale University also reviews a number of important biases that greatly influence how we think of ourselves as well as other people.