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Essays

Campus Classics

Dec 2007

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic.

Like many another professor of nineteenth-century American literature, I find myself teaching a great, great many books from the Penguin Classics series. I sometimes like to think, in the way of aging professors, of all those black-spined volumes, those weighty copies of Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Walden and such, that wend their way through the lives and homes of former students, finding space for themselves first in moving boxes and on improvised shelves and, later, dog-eared and a bit battered, into a place of permanence in their grown-up lives. One of the books I most like to imagine my students carrying with them into adulthood is Henry James's The Bostonians, appended in Richard Lansdown's Penguin edition with extracts from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and James's own The American Scene. It is a particular joy to teach to undergraduates. I hope they return to it and find undimmed their initial, wonderful surprise: surprise that a writer so "difficult" could also be so funny, that a book could so combine satirical cold-heartedness with such aching tenderness, that a place and a time and a writer so removed from their present tense could be posing questions about the entanglements of sex and love and politics, say that feel to them anything but antiquated or academic. Of course, this vision of a post-collegiate return to those weathered black Penguins may be little more than a professor's pipe dream. But, as modest dreams go, it is, I find, a sustaining one.

Peter M. Coviello
Associate Professor of English and Acting Director of the Program in Africana Studies,
Bowdoin College
Course: "Empire of Feeling"