Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


January 2012

My Last Duchess

My Last Duchess
Robert Browning

Famous as an example of the dramatic monologue in poetry, Browning’s poem hasn’t left us with any particularly notable lines or phrases, like some others on this list, but is one of the most re-printed poems in English, a standard of high school literature classes, and one widely-recognized by its title if not by its verse. It’s a nobleman showing off his art to the representative of a potential second wife, discussing the first wife whose portrait hangs behind a curtain. The speaker is, we expect, Alfonoso Il Este, 16th century duke of Ferrara, and the ex in question Lucrezia de Medici – his young first wife who died (and suspiciously so) at 17 after he had abandoned her when her overly flirtatious nature compromised his possession of her as private trophy.

Continue reading “My Last Duchess”


Iron John

Iron John
Robert Bly

Iron John was resoundingly attacked by feminist scholars when it appeared in 1990, and Bly himself associated in many circles with pseudo-intellectual anti-feminist backlash. In this discussion of myth and gender, social psychology and the nature of strength, the well-known poet lamented the disappearance of manhood and the tendency to consider masculinity a four-letter word, and argued the time was long overdue for a movement by, for, and about men. The response was massive. A men’s movement did indeed begin to emerge with the conversation Bly initiated; or, more accurately, several men’s movements emerged – some of them thoughtful, reflective, and entirely consistent with the project as Bly himself understood it, but some articulating exactly the misogynist politics that feminist critics feared. Continue reading “Iron John”

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James

OK, this is gonna sound pretty lame. Upper class American girl travels around Europe among families that know what class really means, navigating her way between social expectations and individual choice, love and marriage, US-style individualism and Old World etiquette. It’s a glimpse into high society when high society mattered, a reflection on the cultural differences between Europe and America, a study in one young woman’s attempt to find her way in a world that’s rapidly transitioning to ‘the modern’.

Continue reading “The Portrait of a Lady”

The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough
James Frazer

“I realized then that anthropology, as presented by Sir James Frazer, is a great science, worthy of as much devotion as any of her elder and more exact studies and I became bound to the service of Frazerian anthropology.” Bronislaw Malinowski, by all accounts one of the most significant and influential figures in the development of anthropology, started here, with Frazer, with The Golden Bough, a study of comparative religion that not only helped to shape anthropology as an academic discipline but profoundly influenced a whole lot of the literature that appears on this list and intellectual and artistic culture generally – Yeats, Lovecraft, D.F. Lawrence, Hemingway, Freud, William Carlos Williams, Wittgenstein, and – more recently – Joseph Campbell and Camille Paglia, to name just a few.

Continue reading “The Golden Bough”


Marquis de Sade

“The most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination” – Napoleon Bonaparte sure took note of this little book by Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, written during a stint in jail in 1787, edited into various shapes (some more graphic than others) and finally ordered destroyed in 1815 after its author died in the jail/ insane asylum that had been his home for a number a years. The legacy? C’mon. The guy gave us the term sadism. That is some impact.

Continue reading “Justine”

First Principles

First Principles
Herbert Spencer

In London’s Highgate Cemetary, the tombstone of Karl Marx looks out over another slab of rock, this one marking the interred remains of Herbert Spencer – at least as well-known and intellectually significant in in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but largely forgotten shortly thereafter but for this simple phrase, “survival of the fittest”. Yup. That’s Spencer. Sociologist, biologist, philosopher, political theorist, radical democrat-turned-conservative, and the guy who planned to lay out for all the world to see a universal science/ philosophy in which the progressive force of evolution explained not only biological development but psychology, social order, and political life. Not enough? Not just evolutionary process but a rule of universal natural law would explain just about everything, once it was identified and explained. And Spencer figured he was the man to do it.

Continue reading “First Principles”


William Shakespeare

Witches, betrayal, ambition and a whole lot of murder – that’s Macbeth. The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies plays fast and loose with Scottish history to paint a grim view of the drive to power and the madness of guilt. Not only stage and screen, but novels and comic books have told this tale that continues to weave itself into our cultural life and serve as perhaps the most important reference point for the theatre community.

Continue reading “Macbeth”

Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class
Thorstein Veblen

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen is a tough nut to crack. Half the time he wrote seriously, half the time he wrote satirically, and much of the time readers and even his own colleagues couldn’t tell which was which. Mostly he seemed to hate just about everything, reaching deep into human history and prehistory to make the point that the world of industrial liberal capitalism was in large part just more of the same human folly, vanity, and parasitism. Continue reading “Theory of the Leisure Class”

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
Judy Blume

Kids books were never the same after Judy Blume. Blubber, Deenie, Then Again Maybe I Won’t – books for kids and teenagers that were about something more than adventure or moralizing. These were kids who were scared and confused and absolutely perfectly normal, kids who hurt each other and felt hurt, kids who masturbated and fantasized, kids who wouldn’t think about talking to their parents about what was really happening in their lives and in their bodies. These were kids exactly like me and exactly like every one in my class, and these were books that brought a new level of honesty, education and emotional support to the generation of kids born in the wake of the feminist revolution and each generation since. I could write at length about each and every book and what I felt in its pages. Better, though, to just watch and listen to this, from Amanda Palmer:

Continue reading “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret”

Blog at

Up ↑