Portland Seminar: Past Programs

The Master and the Margarita2017: Back in the U.S.S.R.

  • The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
  • Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets An Oral History by Svetlana Alexievich

With Russia’s reemergence as a major actor on the world stage, this seminar turns to great literature for a wider perspective on Russia’s past and the legacy of its Soviet era on the present.

Two nonfiction works by Nobel laureates—Milosz’s The Captive Mind and Alexievitch’s newly translated Secondhand Time—investigate the appeal of the Soviet system during its height and after its fall, respectively.

These works frame two great Russian novels of the 20th century: Grossman’s Everything Flows, a harrowing portrayal of Stalinist enormities as remembered by a man returning from the gulags, and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a satiric phantasmagoria of devilry in Moscow. Read together, these four works create a fascinating dialogue among themselves, and should create the same among seminar participants as we explore, away from the heat of the daily news, modern Russia.



Black Boy

2016: The Outsider

  • Black Boy by Richard Wright
  • Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

In concert with other MHC programming exploring the impact and reach of the 14th Amendment (submitted to the states for ratification 150 years ago), the texts of this seminar deal with both the issue of racial inequality that was the Amendment’s initial target, and the subsequent application of the Amendment to civic rights and equal protection involving sexual orientation and poverty.




The Better Angels cover Steven Pinker2015: Better Angels

  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  • The Orestia by Aeschylus, translated by Robert Fagles
  • Black Robe by Brian Moore
  • 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

The “Better Angels” seminar is an attempt to engage in such a dialogue, beginning with Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our NatureWhy Violence Has Declined. I suspect Pinker wanted the second part of the title to be provocative, and hope it proves so. At any rate, it is a text full of sweeping ideas drawn from evolutionary psychology, historical and archaeological records and statistics, often in the service of battering preconceptions about the history and frequency of violence. The book is interesting not simply because of his thesis, but for the entertaining compendia of human behaviors over the millennia, and for Pinker’s portrait (disturbing and encouraging in equal measure) of human potential.



 The Leopard book cover2014: Spring Break in Italy

  • The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (trans. by A. Colquhoun)
  • The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani (trans. by W. Weaver)
  • My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (trans. by A. Goldstein)

Whether you’ve survived the icy winds of St. Petersburg, or simply endured the long nights of another Maine winter, you deserve a trip to the sunnier climes of Sicily, the Po Valley, and Naples. The trip may be fictional, but the savings are real