New York City

Fiction, the Monstrous, and the Limits of the Human

Gordon Turnbull,’86 PhD, Yale Boswell Editions

Mondays,  March 7 - April 11, 4:20 - 5:50 pm

Location: Yale Club of New York City, 50 Vanderbilt Ave, New York, NY 10017

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Course Description:

From classical antiquity's tales of gods and monsters, to Eurocentric medieval romance fantasies of cultural conquest and defeat, to the modern novel’s reflective engagement with its own processes of strange birth and invention, literature has confronted the contentious questions of the self and “the other,” of normative ideology and the “the alien” or “the foreign,” of humanity and its limits. Fiction has celebrated its own exemplification of the human capacity for creation even as it has lamented the concurrent human passion for destruction, often expressing an anxiety about its own possible role in the creation of appealing as well as appalling tales of monstrosity.  Part One of the course (Fall 2015) traced the development of these concerns in six canonical works of the English literary tradition: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.   The second part (conceived of as both a continuation of the concerns investigated in the Fall, and a freestanding sequence in its own right) offers a selection of
six representative novels as a survey of post-World War II inheritors of this literary tradition, writers working in the shadow of the knowledge that humanity had at last created to the capacity to destroy itself entirely, and may well have entered what some are calling The Anthropocene. 


John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids (1951)

William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)

Walter M. Miller Jr.: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

Ursula K. le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go (2005)


Gordon Turnbull is General Editor of the Yale Boswell Editions, one of Yale's outstanding large-scale scholarly editorial enterprises, where he oversees a global editorial team bringing to publication selections of the vast archive of James Boswell's private papers. Boswell had been best-known to literary history for his pioneering biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), but his personal papers — most of which had been suppressed by his descendants and were recovered only in the twentieth century and are now in Yale's Beinecke Library — have brought him renewed fame as a compelling confessional diarist. Turnbull, born and raised in Sydney, is an honors graduate of the Australian National University, in Canberra, and came to Yale for doctoral study as a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar. He taught in the Yale English Department and at Smith College before assuming directorship of the Yale Boswell Editions in 1997. His specialty is the literature of the British eighteenth century, in particular of the Samuel Johnson circle, and he is a former course director of The European Literary Tradition, one of the Yale English Department's main introductory survey courses for literature students. He is the author of numerous scholarly and critical essays on Boswell, Johnson, and their circle, has taught and lectured widely on these authors, and is a featured speaker at the annual Boswell Book Festival held each May in Ayrshire, Scotland. He contributes a regular column, "Yale Boswell Editions Notes," to the twice-yearly Johnsonian News Letter.  His edition of Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763, the first re-editing of this famous diary since 1950, appeared in 2010 in Penguin Classics, and was re-issued in 2013 in a second printing.  He has served as faculty lecturer on a number of Yale Alumni Association educational programs, and is now in his fourth year of teaching courses for the Yale Alumni College.


What is a Classic?

Michael Holquist,’68 PhD, Professor Emeritus Comparative Literature & Slavic Language & Literature

Mondays,  March 7 - April 18, 6:00 - 7:30 pm (no class March 21)

Location: Yale Club of New York City, 50 Vanderbilt Ave, New York, NY 10017

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Course Description:

Classic, our term for a revered work of literature, derives from the history of economics, not the arts.  In ancient Rome, classici  was a term for the wealthiest class; the not so rich were infra classem, and proletarii had no property.  It wasn’t until the first century of the empire that ‘classic’ was used metaphorically to refer to an old author canonized by admiration and an authority in his particular style.

In 2016, this etymology is of more than philological relevance.  Undergraduate courses devoted to the study of classic texts are now rare outside the Ivy League, and virtually absent from junior colleges.  What has historically been regarded as the heritage of Western culture is now one of the ways that class difference is now being defined.  And there are other challenges that courses derisively characterized as “from Plato to NATO” now face.  The charge of being exclusively the products of  “dead white males;” the study of traditional classic texts is felt to get in the way of studying more immediately useful subjects, such as technology or finance.

 Yale, of course, has been a center for the undergraduate study of the classics for centuries, and its Directed Studies course is often cited as the most egregious example of everything that is objectionable about ‘great books’ courses.  Now is a good time to examine some of these criticisms.      

In this AYA course we will read six texts historically regarded as classics and frequently found in the syllabi of Directed Studies (and LitHum at Columbia).  In so doing, we will, of course, devote attention to the texts themselves.  But we shall do so in the context of current debate about their relevance.

We shall be reading portions of: The Iliad, the Bible, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, Plato’s “Apology,” “Phaedo,” and “Symposium,” Hamlet, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.


Michael Holquist received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1963, and his Ph. D. from Yale in 1968. He taught at Yale (where he was Chair of the Comparative Literature Department) for many years, becoming emeritus in 2005.  He is now a Senior Fellow in the Heyman Center at Columbia University.   He also taught at the University of Texas, Austin, and Indiana University, Bloomington.  He has published as author, co-author, or translator seven books and over ninety articles on topics as varied as utopian fiction, Lewis Carroll’s nonsense, detective stories, and several Russian writers.  He is best known for his work on the Russian thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin.  He has lectured in virtually every major research university in the United States and in several abroad, including China, Australia, Russia, Finland, Spain, Israel, etc.  His honors include several endowed lectureships (Christian Gauss, Princeton; Northrop Frye, Toronto, Wei Lun, Chinese University of Hong Kong), etc. For his work in Directed Studies, he won the Byrnes-Sewell Prize, Yale’s highest award for undergraduate teaching. He holds an honorary doctorate from Stockholm University (2001).  He served as President of the Modern language Association of America in 2007.


Hearing Voices: Modern Poets in Disguise

Paul Kane,’90 PhD, Professor of English, Vassar College

Mondays,  March 7 - April 18, 7:45 - 9:15 pm (no class March 21)

Location: Yale Club of New York City, 50 Vanderbilt Ave, New York, NY 10017

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Course Description:

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion,” says the arch Modernist, T. S. Eliot, “but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”  While many poets disagree with Eliot’s ideas of impersonality, a surprising number of major poets in the early 20th century did write poems in voices other than their own, inventing characters, putting on masks, deploying various techniques of disguise, all in the name of saying something that couldn’t be expressed otherwise.  This course will look closely at some of these poets and their poems, examining their strategies and listening for what they say and for what, perhaps, they don’t say.  Poets will include William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, H. D., Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.  Our approach to these writers will entail what Friedrich Nietzsche calls “slow reading,” taking our time to hear—and even appreciate—the different voices coming through. 


Paul Kane (Yale BA’73, PhD’90) is a poet, critic and scholar.  He has published five collections of poems; two editions of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work with The Library of America (co-edited with Harold Bloom); three anthologies, including Poetry of the American Renaissance; a critical study of Romanticism and Negativity; two collaborations with the photographer William Clift; and a collection of translations of the Persian poet Hafiz.  His essays and poems appeared in many journals, including The Paris Review, The New Republic, The New Criterion, and The Kenyon Review.  He is poetry editor of the journal Antipodes and serves as Artistic Director of the Mildura Writers Festival and as General Editor of the Braziller Series of Australian Poets.  His awards include grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Fulbright Program.  In addition to undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale, he holds an MA from Melbourne University and an Honorary Doctorate from La Trobe University. He has taught at Yale and Monash University (in Australia) and is currently a Professor at Vassar College, where he teaches in the English Department and in the Environmental Studies Program. is currently a Professor at Vassar College, where he teaches in the English Department and in the Environmental Studies Program.