Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


Nineteenth Century

Moby Dick

Moby Dick
Herman Melville

Reviews were initially mixed when Herman Melville published this now-classic of American literature. His friend Nathanial Hawthorne liked it, but many responses went more along these lines: “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.”

Continue reading “Moby Dick”


The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe

It’s such an incredibly effective image. The heart of the murder victim still beating beneath the floorboards, pounding in the ears of the killer until he is driven to confess his crime. Poe’s device to explore the crippling and maddening power of guilt is not easily forgotten, and sticks with us as readers. Indeed, it sticks with us as a culture whether we’ve read the story ourselves our not, the heartbeat in the eardrums a lasting symbol of conscience.

Continue reading “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery

Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery
Louis Pasteur

Fermentation is a biological process carried out by micro-organisms. And that little discovery changed the world. ‘Pasteurized’ as in milk, the existence of vaccines, home-brewing – they all owe a whole lot to Louis Pasteur who laid the groundwork for microbiology and biochemistry and gave us some of the most basic foundations of modern scientific knowledge. All over the world, universities, hospitals and city streets are named for him, a man known as one of the greatest benefactors of the contemporary world. Continue reading “Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery”

Little Women

Little Women
Louisa M. Alcott

Louisa May Alcott never wanted to write the book that she’s known for. She wrote semi-erotic stories to pay the bills, more politically-charged, reflective pieces for herself and the world she wanted to make, and Little Women…well, she wrote that cause a publisher who liked her writing style asked to her to. There could be big sales in a mass-market book about girls for girls, so maybe she oughta take a break from the work inspired by and engaged with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and give this other project a try. Continue reading “Little Women”

The German Ideology

The German Ideology
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Before there was The Communist Manifesto there was The German Ideology, Marx’ and Engels’ first thorough articulation of the theoretical framework that would come to be called Marxism – its historical materialism, its critique of capitalism, its idea of socialism. It is, really, an outline or notebook, a text in which Marx and Engels work through the insights and critical appraisals of other thinkers in order to set out what’s different about their own analysis. That is, The German Ideology is not the place to go for the most sophisticated or polished word on Marx’s framework; but it is the place to go to see how Marx got to his framework, how he put it all together in the early years, and where the origins lie of so many other of his and Engels’ works. Continue reading “The German Ideology”

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”

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”

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”

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑