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Campus Classics

Oct-Nov. 2007

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Michael Gorra, editor of our Penguin Classic, The Portable Conrad, shares his thoughts and his Smith College students' responses to Goethe's Italian Journey.

These days when I teach a class on the Victorian novel I order all Penguins if I can. I like their black-spined uniformity, their solidity—sometimes I tell my students that this is what a canon looks like. Of course, when I make my choice of the Penguin Bleak House or Middlemarch I'm doing so in a market of competing editions. That's not the case with my favorite Penguin to teach from, an edition of Goethe's Italian Journey that has been continuously in print since 1970. There's no other paperback available, and really there doesn't need to be, even if by today's standards its apparatus is minimal—no notes, not even a map. The translation has a kind of stately zest; no surprise, given that Auden did it, in collaboration with Elizabeth Mayer. Every year the students in my course on travel narratives find that this book takes them by surprise. They may know Goethe as a name, but only as a name, and one they're a bit scared of. And yet each time they find themselves taken by his enthusiasm, his excitement and delight, his sense that coming to Italy has put him into a larger world. As do I. For if in Rome even Goethe can admit to being swept away, then who are we to play things cool?

Michael Gorra
Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English
Smith College
Course: "Travellers' Tales"