The American Revolution: A Free Course from Yale University

When you have a little time, you can drop in on a free course that revisits a seminal moment in U.S. history–the American Revolution. Taught by Yale historian Joanne Freeman, the course explores how the Revolution brought about “some remarkable transformations–converting British colonists into American revolutionaries, and a cluster of colonies into a confederation of states with a common cause.” You can access the 25 lectures above, or on YouTube and iTunes. Also find a syllabus for the course on this Yale web site.

“The American Revolution” will be added to our list of Free History Courses, a subset of our larger collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Flannery O’Connor: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Ayn Rand (1960)

In a letter dated May 31, 1960, Flannery O’Connor, the author best known for her classic story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (listen to her read the story here) penned a letter to her friend, the playwright Maryat Lee. It begins rather abruptly, likely because it’s responding to something Maryat said in a previous letter:

I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

The letter, which you can read online or find in the book The Habit of Being, then turns to other matters.

O’Connor’s critical appraisal of Ayn Rand’s books is pretty straightforward. But here’s one factoid worth knowing. Mickey Spillane (referenced in O’Connor’s letter) was a hugely popular mystery writer, who sold some 225 million books during his lifetime. According to his Washington Post obit, “his specialty was tight-fisted, sadistic revenge stories, often featuring his alcoholic gumshoe Mike Hammer and a cast of evildoers.” Critics, appalled by the sex and violence in his books, dismissed his writing. But Ayn Rand defended him. In public, she said that Spillane was underrated. In her book The Romantic Manifesto, Rand put Spillane in some unexpected company when she wrote: “[Victor] Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral–Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide–Spillane gives me the feeling of listening to a military band in a public park–Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.” All of which goes to show that Ayn Rand’s literary taste was no better than her literature.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in June, 2014.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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The Improbable Time When Orson Welles Interviewed Andy Kaufman (1982)

“Sitcoms are the lowest form of entertainment,” declares Andy Kaufman as portrayed by Jim Carrey in Milos Forman’s biopic Man on the Moon. “I mean, it’s just stupid jokes and canned laughter.” The scene comes in the period of Kaufman’s life in the late 1970s when, growing ever more well-known on the back of acts like his “Foreign Man” character, he receives an offer to take part in ABC’s Taxi. The real-life Kaufman, eventually convinced to join the show’s cast, developed the Foreign Man into the unplaceable mechanic Latka Gavras. Quite possibly Taxi‘s most memorable character, Latka also won the appreciation of no less demanding a cultural figure than Orson Welles.

Guest-hosting the Merv Griffin Show in June of 1982, Welles describes Taxi as a show that has “kept television from being a criminal felony” just before bringing Kaufman on for a brief (and uncharacteristically straightforward) chat. He heaps praise on Kaufman’s performance as Latka, adding, “I want to know why it is that you go and wrestle with people when you can act so well.” Kaufman had shown up wearing a neck brace, an accessory signifying the end of his stint as a professional wrestler, one of the many inexplicable but somehow compelling choices in a short career that blurred the lines between comedy, performance art, and life itself.

“Nobody ever came from nowhere more completely,” Welles says, drawing a big studio-audience laugh with this description of not just Latka but Kaufman as well. Asked how he came up with such a distinctive character voice, Kaufman says only that he “grew up in New York, and you hear a lot of different voices in New York” (“You don’t hear that one,” replies Welles). He also cites the accents of a high-school friend from South America and a college roommate from Iran. Less than four years later, both Kaufman and Welles would be gone (and actor Ron Glass, looking on from the other side of the couch, joined them this past November).

Or at least both men would be gone if you don’t credit the rumors about Kaufman having elaborately faked his death. “I don’t know whether it’s the innocence of the fellow or the feeling you have that he is not stupider than everybody, but maybe smarter, that adds to the fascination,” Welles says. Again he speaks ostensibly of Kaufman’s Foreign Man/Latka persona, but his words apply equally to the man who not just played but periodically — and sometimes unpredictably — became him. 33 years after Kaufman’s death, or in any case disappearance from life, that fascination remains as strong as ever.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes: Discover the Postmodern MTV Variety Show That Made Warhol a Star in the Television Age (1985-87)

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” said Andy Warhol. Actually, no, he didn’t. But Warhol suggested to photographer Nat Finkelstein that everyone wanted to be famous, to which Finkelstein added, “yeah, for 15 minutes.” It’s a slightly different meaning. (The idea first appeared in its well-known form in a 1968 program for a Warhol exhibition in Sweden.)

Is it true that everyone wants to be famous? It’s certainly true that Andy Warhol wanted to, and for much longer than 15 minutes. Like the hardest-working YouTube celebrity today, he didn’t wait to be discovered but set about making it happen himself.

But while he achieved pop art stardom in the 60s, Warhol truly longed to be on TV, a dream that took a little longer to materialize. His first program, a New York public-access interview show, debuted in 1979, then a second version in 1980 (see Richard Berlin interview Frank Zappa on Andy Warhol’s T.V. in 1983). Over a period of four years, he brought on a host of major celebrities, but attracted a necessarily limited audience.

In ’81, Warhol finally got a mainstream TV break when he “made his way to NBC,” notes Alexxa Gotthardt, “with a series of spots for Saturday Night Live…. Warhol’s foray into television allowed him to become even more of a celebrity himself.” His persistent efforts paid dividends when he joined the nascent 1985 MTV lineup with one of its first non-music-video shows, Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes.

As you can see in the promo at the top of the post, the show promised a “ride downtown” and a “ride to the wild side.” It did not disappoint. A sort of postmodern variety show, the program “put everybody together,” explains Andy Warhol Museum curator Geralyn Huxley, “The high and the low. The rich and the famous. The struggling artists and the rising stars.” Just above, you can see Ian McKellen recite Shakespeare while garage rockers the Fleshtones play some psychedelic grooves behind him.

Above, see Debbie Harry interview Courtney Love, “a flamboyant rising star,” just come from the success of Sid and Nancy.  Further down, the Ramones bitch about the state of rock and roll in 1987, then play “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” a scathing response to Ronald Reagan’s disturbing visit to Germany on the 40th anniversary of V-E Day. (The song contains the line, “You’re a politician don’t become one of Hitler’s children.”) These are but a tiny sampling of the many hundreds of artists who traipsed through the soundstage of Warhol’s show: dozens of people appeared in a single episode—as many as 30 guests in some of the later shows.

Running for two years, until his death in 1987, Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes introduced millions of people to the artist in just the way he’d always wanted. “More and more kids were watching MTV,” says his producer Vincent Fremont. “I don’t know if they knew that Andy was a famous artist, but to them he was certainly a television personality.” And on TV, Warhol wrote in 1975, a person “has all the space anyone could ever want, right there in the television box.” If you’re Andy Warhol, you also have all the celebrity guests anyone could ever want.

See a complete list of the five episodes that aired between 1985 and 1987—full of stars, rising stars, and scores of fascinating unknowns—at

via Artsy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is a Life-Changing Realization You Wish You’d Had Sooner in Life?

The calendar date may be arbitrary, a quirk of history that could have been otherwise—but it’s no coincidence, I think, that New Year’s produces a reflective mood, a time of looking both backward and forward, especially in those parts of the world currently held in winter’s chill and dark, awaiting the thaw of spring. The turn of the Gregorian calendar seems to beg us to produce some sober wisdom amidst the revelry of the holidays: to account for what we’ve learned, ruminate on intentions, take general stock of our personal stores.

It’s also a time when we connect with our younger selves (many of us having just spent a few days visiting parents, hometowns, and childhood bedrooms). Those younger selves can seem callow and naïve in hindsight, and though it’s hardly any use living with regret, we might wish with some degree of rue that we could have handled some things better—and applied the hard-won realizations of the present much earlier. It’s a common enough sentiment, handled perfectly in The Faces’ “Ooh La La.”

I wish, for example, that I had learned how to meditate years before I did. It might have saved my young, moody, impulsive self a world a grief. (But then again, without that grief, would I have ever learned to meditate?) Recently, a MetaFilter user revisited a post from 2013 that asked the question (“What is a life changing realization that you wish you’d had sooner?”) to the internet community at large. The responses ranged from the fairly generic (“it’s okay if you don’t want to be friends with your exes”) to the personal, specific, and colorful. See a sampling of the answers below from both the original 2013 thread and the recent 2017 repost:

Love leaves scars. And that’s a good thing. We want to be permanently affected by the ones that we love. Otherwise, it’s not really love. And like any other scar, it begins as a painful wound, goes through the period of laudable pus during which you drain out all the bad stuff, and then, eventually, heals to a painless but visible scar.

This seems kinda silly, but a couple of years ago I realized that I am under no obligation to finish a book that I don’t like. As a reader, that was such an epiphany! 

The most important and dangerous tool in the lives of average people is compound interest.

Behaviour is driven by emotion, not rational thought: instead of trying to force myself to do things by berating myself, I get my emotions in order first by synthesising the feeling of having already done it. My procrastination has been radically reduced, and I’m freer to get on and do the things I need to do.

Take other people’s head injuries seriously. Someone who’s just had a blow to the brain is not qualified to judge whether it is “no big deal.” 

Honor the parts of yourself that are elusive and mysterious and maybe unintelligible to other people. Whether that means embracing an identity like “queer nonbinary trans woman” or becoming more comfortable with crying and not knowing why or not having opinions and answers at hand… Practice not knowing. 

I’m partial to these offerings because I find them moving, funny, or conversant with whatever meager wisdom I like to think I’ve acquired after much trial and error. But what about you? As 2017 winds to a close—a year fraught with more stress and anxiety than most—which answers leap out to you? Or, if you’re brave and feel like sharing, what would you like to pass on to your younger, more bumbling self if you could go back and have a sit-down with him or her? Please pass along your thoughts and wisdom in the comments below.

via MetaFilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Mark Twain on Why “Travel is Fatal to Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness, and Many of Our People Need It Sorely on These Accounts” (1869)

Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Humanity has come up with many negative stereotypes of Americans, some of them not entirely groundless: the widely held belief, for example, that Americans don’t get out much. I admit the truth of that one as an American myself — albeit an American who now lives in Asia — because I certainly did drag my feet on getting a passport and getting out there in the world at first. Perhaps I can take comfort in the fact that no less a colossus of American letters began his international travels even later than I did, though when he did get around to it, he got even more out of it: not only The Innocents Abroad, one of the best-loved travel books of all time, but an insight into what makes travel so vital a pursuit in the first place.

The travels Mark Twain recounts in the book began in 1867 on the chartered vessel Quaker City, which took him and a group of his countrymen through Europe and the Holy Land, an itinerary including a stop at the 1867 Paris Exhibition and journeys through the Papal States to Rome and through the Black Sea to Odessa, all followable on a hypertext map at the University of Virginia’s Mark Twain in His Times page. “In his account Mark Twain assumes two alternate roles,” says the Library of America, “at times the no-nonsense American who refuses to automatically venerate the famous sights of the Old World (preferring Lake Tahoe to Lake Como), or at times the put-upon simpleton, a gullible victim of flatterers and ‘frauds,’ and an awe-struck admirer of Russian royalty.”

Whether you read The Innocents Abroad in the Library of America’s edition or in one of a variety of free formats downloadable from Project Gutenberg, you’ll eventually come to Twain’s justification for the entire project: not the writing project with its handsome remuneration and name-making popularity, but the project of travel itself. Though many elements of the Old World experience, as well as prolonged exposure to his fellow Americans, put his formidable complaining ability to the test, the “breezy, shrewd, and comical manipulator of English idioms and America’s mythologies about itself and its relation to the past” (as the Library of America describes him) ultimately admits that

I have no fault to find with the manner in which our excursion was conducted. Its programme was faithfully carried out—a thing which surprised me, for great enterprises usually promise vastly more than they perform. It would be well if such an excursion could be gotten up every year and the system regularly inaugurated. Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Distinctly Twainian words, of course, but many other writers have since also tried to express the uniquely mind-expanding properties of spending time outside your homeland. As Rudyard Kipling memorably put it to his own countrymen, a few decades after The Innocents Abroad, in “The English Flag,” “What should they know of England who only England know?”

Or as one writer friend of mine, well-known for the globalized nature of his books and well as of his own identity, once said, “If Americans don’t travel, we’re like a man who lives in a hovel assuming everyone else lives in a worse hovel.” But it always comes back to Twain, who knew that “nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people” — and who also knew that nobody quite realized “what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.” We can all think of much worse reasons to head across the ocean than that.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Should We Read Charles Dickens? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

You can’t go near the literary press lately without hearing mention of Nathan Hill’s sprawling new novel, The Nix, widely praised as a comic epic on par with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Novelist John Irving, to whom Hill has drawn comparisons, goes so far as to compare the novelist to Charles Dickens. Such praise goes too far, if you ask Current Affairs editor Brianna Rennix. In a caustic review essay, Rennix unfavorably measures not only The Nix, but also the postmodern novels of Wallace, Pynchon, McCarthy, Franzen, and DeLillo, against the baggy Victorian serialized works of writers like Dickens and George Eliot. “Books like Middlemarch,” she writes, “took seriously the idea that novels had the power to transform human life, not merely—as seems to be the goal of a lot of postmodern novels—to riff off its foibles for the purpose of making the author look clever.”

It’s possible to appreciate Rennix’s essay as a reader of more ecumenical tastes—as someone who happens to enjoy Dickens and Eliot and all the authors she dismisses. There’s much more to the postmodern novel than she allows, but there are also very good reasons particular to our age for us turn, or return, to Dickens.

In the TED-Ed video above, scripted by literary scholar Iseult Gillespie (who previously made a case for Virginia Woolf), we get some of them. For all the fun he had with human foibles, Dickens was also a social realist, the greatest influence on later literary naturalism, who “shed light on how his society’s most invisible people lived.” Unlike many novelists, in his own time and ours, Dickens had the personal experience of living in such conditions to draw on for his authentic portrayals.

Nonetheless, Dickens’ did not allow his enormous popular success to blunt his compassion and concern for the plight of working people and the poor and socially marginalized. The engrossing, highly entertaining plots and characters in his novels are always pressed into service. We might call his motives political, but the term is too often pejorative. The “Dickensian” mode is a humanist one. Dickens’ did not push specific ideological agendas; he tried, as Alain de Botton says in his introductory video above, “to get us interested in some pretty serious things: the evils of an industrializing society, the working conditions in factories, child labor, vicious social snobbery, the maddening inefficiencies of government bureaucracy.” He tried, in other words, to move his readers to care about the people around them. What they chose to do with that care was, of course, then, as now, up to them.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Photographer Nan Goldin Now on Instagram

A quick heads up: Back in August, Cindy Sherman, one of the best-known photographers working today, launched an Instagram account where she has posted 600 new photos and strange self-portraits. Now you can look forward to exploring an Instagram account belonging to another influential American photographer, Nan Goldin. So far, you’ll only find 19 photos, including the one above, captioned as “Self portrait as a Dominatrix Boston 1977 (a long time ago).” But hopefully that’s just the beginning.

Goldin’s Instagram account makes its debut at the same time that Steidl Books has re-released Nan Goldin: The Beautiful Smile–the memoir in which Goldin famously photographed, writes The New York Times, the subjects who “have been those closest to her: Transsexuals, cross-dressers, drug users, lovers, all people she befriended when she moved to New York” and who lived in what mainstream critics would coldly call the ‘margins of society’.” The highly-praised book is now out again.

via Hyperallergic

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