Weinstein bringing Faulkner to Oprah audience

Sunday, March 11, 2007

If you’re an avid Oprah Winfrey fan, you’re probably familiar with Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein, who this August gave a series of online lectures to Oprah’s Book Club about enigmatic author William Faulkner.

Weinstein is the author of six books, a former Fulbright professor, a winner of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a self-proclaimed “Faulkner addict.”

Weinstein said he relished the opportunity Oprah Winfrey gave him to spread the good word about Faulkner.

He said his admiration for Faulkner dates back to his undergraduate days at Princeton, when he was “mesmerized” by Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying.” He said what intrigued him then and continues to fascinate him now is “the level of cogency that is primitive in Faulkner.”

That, he said, is why he considers Faulkner to be America’s greatest novelist, and given Weinstein’s knowledge of Faulkner and Oprah’s powerful influence, the two seemed ideally matched to bring the author’s work to the public.

“Who else besides Oprah could get so many people to read Faulkner?” he said.

According to Weinstein, any potential tension between higher learning and popular culture was not an issue while he worked with Oprah. Because she believes that “great books matter,” he said, she used her celebrity status to champion Faulkner with her book club.

Weinstein said he was able to give his audience nuanced and sophisticated lectures that did not “dumb down” the material for popular consumption.

“If you like to teach, (it is) extremely gratifying when your stuff gets disseminated ever more widely,” he said. Delivering lectures over the Internet gives him the ability to do just that, he added.

Going further, he said this method of online learning could begin to drive society toward a democratization of learning with potentially broad implications for continuing education in America.

Weinstein called Oprah’s attempts to bring great literature to the public “heroic.” Further, as Oprah is an African-American woman, he called her choice of Faulkner – whom many regard as a racist and a sexist – “gutsy.”

He conceded that Faulkner’s political views on race and women were unenlightened, especially in his early novels, but he said he did not consider these grounds to disregard the value of his works.

Weinstein said he is particularly struck by the stream of consciousness Faulkner uses, where the ordinary sequences of time and the rules of grammar are suspended. Though some might argue that the confusion brought about by these passages makes Faulkner’s work too challenging for casual readers, Weinstein said readers can draw meaning from this confusion because it illuminates the disorder that lies at what he calls the “ground zero” of human consciousness.

Lessons like these are too valuable to be restricted to the academy, Weinstein said.

“Shakespeare and Faulkner were not writing for professors but for people,” he said.

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