Reading the 60s: Writing the Revolution

Curious Minds Online Course

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The Sixties were a dizzyingly transformative decade in American literature; it was also the last decade in which serious literary figures—from Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer to James Baldwin and Philip Roth—dominated the cultural stage. This lushly illustrated lecture series from Ira Wells, a dynamic and popular lecturer at the University of Toronto, will explore the connections between the literature, films and music of the decade, while offering a fresh light on the writers, books, debates, and controversies that recorded, and contributed to, its many social changes.  Whether you’re a die-hard fan of the writers in this series, or completely new to their work, this will be an entertaining, accessible and thought-provoking study of a historical moment when writers were cultural forces—pushing the boundaries of what we could we print, say and think.

Led by Ira Wells, an assistant professor of literature at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The Walrus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Quarterly, and many other publications. His most recent book is the biography, Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life.

Course registration: $49 (Hot Docs Members: $33, $27, Free)

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The six lectures in this series are now available to stream. You can access each lecture at your leisure by clicking the "Watch Now" button in your confirmation email, or by visiting your My Shows page.

Lecture 1: Sartre in the Suburbs: The Birth of the Sixties
We begin with a consideration of why the Sixties become a legendary moment in our collective imagination. We dive in with Richard Yates, whose classic novel Revolutionary Road represents both a cutting critique of postwar conformity as well as a withering portrayal of ersatz radicalism, with tragic results. Along the way, we explore the psychogeography of the suburbs and think about provocative new theories of the self.
Lecture 2: James Baldwin’s Rhetorical Fire This Time
While the Civil Rights movement had been simmering for decades, the Sixties saw the issue erupt into the mainstream. In this lecture we trace the emergence of James Baldwin as a prophetic voice of racial reckoning and consider his masterful The Fire Next Time as it arrives in one of the most heated moments of American history.
Lecture 3: “I Eat Men Like Air”: Sylvia Plath Unbound
While World War II had undermined traditional gender roles by drawing on women to support the war effort, most women were effectively forced back into traditional the domestic roles of wife and homemaker in the postwar era. This lecture considers the conflicting domestic, professional and artistic demands on women through the example of Sylvia Plath, whose incendiary poetry channels the passion, rage, and inspiration of the female muse.
Lecture 4: Stoner Lit
The Sixties is often remembered for the emergence of psychedelia and drug culture, it was also a decade that saw an extraordinary explosion in higher education, with new Colleges opening around the America at the rate of one per week. We’ll consider how the massive democratization of higher education changed the culture in unexpected ways, paying special attention to John Williams’s exquisite 1965 campus novel, Stoner.
Lecture 5: Prisoners of Sex: Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint and The New Sexual Mores
Loosening sexual mores and a ground-breaking legal verdict against censorship set the stage for a frank representation of sexuality, and writers in the Sixties wrote about sex with newfound explicitness and abandon. In this lecture, we focus on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, considering how Roth and other artists used their newfound freedoms, and how later turmoil surrounding Roth complicates simplistic accounts of the sexual liberation in the Sixties.
Lecture 6: Drinking the Electric Kool-Aid: New Journalism and Old Ideas
In this lecture, we examine several major examples of the path-breaking “New Journalism” (by Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, among others) to think about how larger challenges to objectivity were redefining questions of taste, morality, and reality itself. We conclude by reflecting on the lasting influence of the Sixties, considering how the outsiders of that decade became the most established touchstones of our cultural imagination.

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