Welcome to the Athenæum Academy!
Led by outstanding lecturers working at the top of their respective disciplines, these rigorous and engaging courses are designed for passionate and dedicated life-long learners. Each course includes four lectures (note: individual lectures cannot be purchased à la carte). To ensure an intimate educational experience, space is extremely limited.
Each of the three courses meets on sequential Saturday mornings, 10am-12pm, in the Athenæum’s Reading Room. Coffee and light refreshments will be served. Participants are encouraged to read the titles that will be discussed before beginning the spring literature courses to aid conversation. No prior knowledge of the subject material is required. The series are designed for all levels of expertise, and will offer a collaborative and intimate experience.
The British country house is one of Western civilization’s greatest repositories of art and culture. This course will examine the unique position the country house occupies in British social life and the history of the nation. One of the outstanding features of country houses was their exceptional art collections. But their owners’ true passions were the building and rebuilding of their houses and the laying out of gardens and grounds. These amazing houses may possibly be the aristocracy’s greatest achievement, leaving for us today a rich tapestry that has transformed this symbol of aristocratic privilege into an icon of the national heritage.
Saturday, October 21, 10am-12pm
Castle Howard, Chatsworth, & Brideshead
Considered the first great British house of the 18th century and the finest private house in Yorkshire, Castle Howard is a dazzling star in the firmament of the great houses of the world. The first Baroque palace built for a commoner, Chatsworth is bursting with art, the highlight of which is the collection of Old Master drawings. These two great houses are linked by more than sublime architecture, fantastic art collections, and beautiful grounds – in the early 21st century they became related through Brideshead Revisited.
Saturday, October 28, 10am-12pm
We will go on a romping, fascinating tour through Scottish history using architecture and great houses as our guides. This lecture will paint a rich story of Scotland that will leave you breathless. Kidnappings, bloody battles, and cannibalism – these, together with glittering silver, timeless portraits, and some of the world’s finest Chippendale furniture, all play parts in this fast-paced and unique compilation of Scottish history. Only Scotland could offer such a tale!
Saturday, November 4, 10am-12pm
The King, the Duke, & the Rothschilds
This lecture will examine some of the greatest country houses of England that existed during the magical twilight of the early 20th century. From Highclere Castle (the setting for Downton Abbey) to Blenheim Palace, to the glorious Rothschild houses, there has never been anything quite like the splendor of the grand Edwardian country houses. This serious taste for bling was transmitted to the newly-wealthy American plutocrats, who were decorating their great townhouses on Fifth Avenue in New York City, as well as their country houses and Newport “cottages.”
Saturday, November 18, 10am-12pm
The English Garden
Though the earliest English gardens were planted by Roman conquerors in the 1st century AD, the English garden as we know it today is a designed landscape style that was first developed in the early 18th century. Though indebted to the earlier fashions that had reigned supreme for centuries, the newly-developed and uniquely English garden was a stylistic breakthrough, the likes of which had never before been seen in Europe. We will discuss the development of the English landscape tradition and discuss why the English garden has often been called Britain’s single most important contribution to world culture.
Please note there will be no lecture on Veterans Day, November 11.
Curt DiCamillo is an American architectural historian and a recognized authority on the British country house. He regularly leads scholarly tours that focus on the architectural and artistic heritage of Britain and its influence around the world. He maintains an award-winning database, the DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses, which seeks to document every English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish country house ever built together with a history of their families, architects, collections, and gardens. Curt is currently the Curator for Special Collections at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. He served for nine years as Executive Director of the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA. Previously he worked for 13 years for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The country and the city generated powerful ideas and feelings – both positive and negative – in 19th-century English literature. On the one hand, we can see the country as a location for a natural way of life, a life of peace, innocence, and simple virtue. The city, too, can be depicted positively: as a place of learning, communication, and light. On the other hand, the country can evoke hostile associations: ignorance, limitations, and backward attitudes; the city often seems noisy, stressful, even sometimes evil and violent.
We will focus on two pairs of novels, supplemented by several examples of contemporaneous art, that allow us to follow attitudes toward country and city in literature and art of the period. Along the way we will be tracing the evolution of the novel as it passes through aspects of Romanticism, Realism, and Aestheticism in the Victorian period.
Saturday, February 3, 10am-12pm
Victorianism, the City, & the Country
This brief overview features a contrast between two of Wordsworth’s bucolic poems and Dickens’ brief, ferociously satirical novel, Hard Times, which limns the psychological and economic turmoil caused by the rapid mid-century industrialization of England that roiled towns like his imaginary Coketown by mid-century. Our introduction to developments in the fine arts features painters representing the mid-century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Dante Gabriel Rossetti in particular) who theorize a vision of a romanticized past.
Saturday, February 10, 10am-12pm
Small Town Life
George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss gives us one of the great pictures of childhood and provincial, middle-class society in rural 19th-century England, presenting a genuine tragedy of modern life. In the world of art, we will compare Constable’s idealization of country life in “The Haywain” with “Rain, Steam, and Speed” by J.M.W. Turner, who registers the speed of change and its effect on the rural landscape.
Saturday, February 17, 10am-12pm
Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles presents the gripping tale of “a pure woman faithfully presented” who exists as a figure in a predominantly rural landscape. Identified with nature, caught between a dying agricultural past and forces of modernism, Tess represents Hardy’s own ambivalence concerning the transformation of both urban and rural English life. In the world of art, Burne-Jones and Waterhouse reflect both the idealization of women and cultural anxiety about changing sexual mores.
Saturday, February 24, 10am-12pm
Urban Life at fin de siècle
Wily Wilde! Oscar Wilde’s work helps us see how far we have traveled from a simpler vision of city and country to the artificial environment of fin-de-siècle London. His “The Decay of Lying” wittily turns the relationship between art and nature on its head. Wilde further complicates his radical “theories” with The Picture of Dorian Gray, which denies the beauties of a romanticized rural life and is interested only in the cultivation of artifice as an improvement upon nature, here depicted as unhealthy, unbalanced, devouring. We’ll look at Hunt’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Wilde’s Salomé, giving us visual correlatives for Wilde’s aesthetic theories.
Rhoda Flaxman, PHD is the Founding Director of the Open University of Wellfleet. In 2007, she retired from a 27-year career as an English Professor specializing in Victorian Literature and Art and Writing Across the Curriculum at Wheaton College and Brown University. Following her directorship of Brown University’s innovative Rose Writing Fellows Program, she served as Founding Director of Write Consulting, consulting with university and secondary school faculties nationally on the teaching of expository writing and curricular reform. Since 2007 she has developed a specialization in applied humanities, teaching art and literature at Trinity Repertory Company, the RISD Museum, the Providence Athenæum, and The Open University of Wellfleet.
Civilization and Its Discontents is the title of a well-known book by Freud, where he argues that the tug-of-war between the forces of libido and the restraints of the Law is a difficult-to-resolve constant in culture. We can profitably examine this struggle in a great number of literary texts (as well as in our own lives). We will look at four narrative classics that come at these issues at different moments in history: Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1848), William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).
Saturday, March 3, 10am-12pm
Often seen as a ‘pre-Romantic’ masterpiece, Prévost’s tumultuous love story between an aristocratic young man without funds and a beautiful woman of the people is a deceptively simple tale of passion and conflict. What is deceptive is just how much is on show in this brief but moving tale: the class and gender assumptions of the period, the key role of money as integral to ‘love,’ Paris-as-marketplace, the peculiar mix of sight/blindness that is baked into the first-person narration, and, finally, an echoing presentation of what it means to be a couple.
Saturday, March 10, 10am-12pm
Emily Brontë’s tale of star-crossed lovers has enchanted and engaged readers forever (even though it was not understood when published). Once again, the dictates of class do battle with the wants of the heart, and once again the novel-form enables us to see, in the round, this echoing, inter-generational account of love-gone-wrong, of revenge and ghosts. We will see that this text asks what it means to be a couple, and it will be seen that Brontë – thought to have been sheltered from experience – is preternaturally wise about our emotional and neural lives.
Saturday, March 17, 10am-12pm
Light in August
Faulkner’s novel of 1932 is, astonishingly, the first one where he elects to deal overtly with the issue of race. Earlier Faulkner masterpieces took race for granted as backdrop; this book gives it the tragic centrality it deserves. The novel is at once allegorical – how can a character named Joe Christmas not be? – and decentered: we have trouble determining how the four main players fit together in this saga of a pregnant woman seeking her man. Faulkner has clearly sought to invoke, as well, in the depiction of Christmas, Sophocles’s story of Oedipus: a man who is cursed by not knowing his origins, hence opening onto the riddle of identity. All this makes for a particularly virulent mix, as the forces of life versus death are set into motion.
Saturday, March 24, 10am-12pm
Morrison’s masterpiece of 1987 bears resemblance not only to Modernist fiction, but also to Stowe’s epochal Uncle Tom’s Cabin, given that each novel sets out to take the moral and existential measure of slavery. In the story of Sethe’s murdering of her child – based on real documents – Morrison applies all her art and heart to show us the logic of such an act, as well as to bring us ‘inside’ the mindset that was driven this far. But, beyond even the particulars of the mother/daughter story, Beloved calls up the larger specter of the Middle Passage: a chapter in American history that, as current events remind us, is far from over. This haunting novel speaks to us of bodies: their beauty and vulnerability, their value and their ‘market-value.’
Arnold Weinstein, PHD is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University where he has taught since 1968. He received his B.A. from Princeton University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, in addition to studies at the Sorbonne, the Free University of Berlin, and the University of Lyon. He has been a Fulbright professor in Stockholm, and Visiting Professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. His honors include three fellowships from the NEH, as well as two teaching awards from Brown University. He has written eight books, as well as countless articles, and his work has been nominated for many prizes, including the Pulitzer in nonfiction. He has also delivered some 300 lectures on world literature for The Teaching Company’s Great Courses.