Best sellers emerged as a cultural phenomenon only in the nineteenth century, when they helped mobilize public opinion concerning social issues such as slavery and the conditions of the poor. In the postwar years, television and the Internet have taken over much of this political work. Yet best sellers still create communities through bookclubs ranging from a couple of friends to Oprah’s million-strong fans. In this lecture, Penn English Professor Peter Conn discusses the social history of the American best seller.
Peter Conn holds the Vartan Gregorian Chair in English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also teaches in the Graduate School of Education. Since 1993, he has served as a visiting professor at China's Nanjing University.
Prof. Conn has written many works on American literature and culture, including The American 1930s: A Literary History; Literature in America; The Divided Mind: Ideology and Imagination in America, 1898-1917, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; and Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, which was a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Conn has been a literary consultant on numerous television projects, including the Emmy-winning series, "The American Short Story," and adaptations of novels by James Baldwin and Saul Bellow. An authority on Pearl Buck, in 2004, he was principal literary advisor to "Oprah's Book Club" for The Good Earth.
A John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, Conn has directed National Endowment for the Humanities seminars for college and high school teachers and was the recipient of an NEH Humanities Focus grant. In 2009, The Teaching Company released Conn's video course on "American Best Sellers." Throughout his career, he has won numerous teaching awards, including the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious senior teaching prize, the Lindback Award.
Conn has served as Dean of Penn's College of Arts & Sciences, Chair of the graduate groups in American Civilization and English, and Deputy and Interim Provost of the University of Pennsylvania. He was the founding Faculty Director of Civic House, the university's center for community service.
Vartan Gregorian Professor of English, Penn