A literature professor invites us to sit in on some classes.
The co-founder of Stanford’s Literary Lab and Center for the Study of the Novel, Moretti (Emeritus, Humanities/Stanford Univ.; Distant Reading, 2013, etc.) collects an “odd quintet” of his university lectures on fiction, film, drama, and art and adds another, “Teaching in America,” in which he bemoans the university acting like a store seeking “financial dreams,” thus betraying “its intellectual purpose.” The author clearly wants us to enjoy the “magic” of literature and then “filter it through the skepticism of critique” to acquire an “aesthetic education.” He extracts short passages from the works discussed to analyze how language and style create form. In one of the best lectures, Moretti looks at how Hemingway’s style in “Big Two-Hearted River”—short sentences, a “spectacular” use of prepositional phrases, repetition—acts as a response to the never-mentioned World War I to create a “sort of retrospective exorcism of an unspeakable trauma.” In “Walt Whitman or Charles Baudelaire?” Moretti picks the American when it comes down to the battle “between two incompatible conceptions of modern poetry.” Indeed, Whitman provides “the fundamental model for a democratic aesthetics.” In the engaging and insightful “Day and Night,” Moretti examines the historical and antithetical significance between Westerns and film noir. “Words don’t matter in the Western,” he writes, whereas film noir is “unimaginable without words.” After World War II, these two genres, writes the author, were critical to establishing American cultural hegemony. Next up, “Causality in Death of a Salesman”: “American myths, everywhere: and they all turn to ashes.” Lastly, and most ambitiously, there’s a somewhat hopscotching piece on Vermeer and Hopper/Rembrandt and Warhol. Throughout, Moretti draws on a wide range of authors to assist him in his skeptical critiques.
Fortunately, no grades are given out in these classes, just a “genuine intellectual experience” to learn from a first-rate literary critic.