Great Books Fall Institute

at the Philadelphia Great Books Fall Institute Weekend
November 1-3, 2019 – The Inn at Pocono Manor

Selected Poems – Afterlife
Thomas Gray – Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Edgar Lee Masters – Selected Poems from Spoon River Anthology
Nicholai Gogol – Dead Souls
James Joyce – The Dead
George Saunders – Lincoln in the Bardo


On Friday night, we will discuss selected poems that focus on Afterlife, with Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray and poems from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.

Saturday starts with Nicholai Gogol’s Dead Souls, celebrated as a supremely realistic portrait of provincial Russian life and as a splendidly exaggerated tale; as a paean to the Russian spirit and as a remorseless satire of imperial Russian venality, vulgarity, and pomp. Chichikov, Gogol’s wily antihero, combs the countryside wheeling and dealing for dead souls, while we meet a Dickensian cast of peasants, landowners, and conniving petty officials, few of whom can resist the seductive illogic of Chichikov’s proposition.

Saturday afternoon brings James Joyce’s The Dead, a masterful novella recognized both for its style and emotional intensity. Gabriel Conroy’s dinner party experience and ensuing encounter with Gretta, his wife paradoxically sparks feelings of utter solitude and the interconnectedness of humanity. It’s a meditation on the joys, woes and betrayals of life, the paralysis of soul in the heart of Ireland, and a call to Irish Nationalism.

Sunday morning, we address Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, the Man Booker Prize for 2017 which spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s son, finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. In this transitional state, designated the bardo in Tibetan tradition, a monumental struggle erupts over Willie’s soul. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

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