Dead Poets Society

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Dead Poets Society Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on N. H. Kleinbaum's Dead Poets Society. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of N. H. Kleinbaum

Nancy Kleinbaum studied English at Northwestern University. In the 1970s and 80s, she worked as a freelance writer and journalist for a number of magazines before being offered a chance to write a novelization of the popular Robin Williams film Dead Poets Society in 1989. Kleinbaum was tasked with adapting a draft of the screenplay for the film in the form of a short novel; her novelization was published a few months before the film was released. Kleinbaum has written a number of other books, many of them children’s books or novelizations of other films. Currently she writes for a host of different magazines, and lives with her husband and children in New York.
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Historical Context of Dead Poets Society

While the novel is set in the insular world of Welton Academy, it alludes to the radical changes in American society in the late 50s and early 60s. It’s no coincidence that the novel is set in 1959, at the dawn of a new decade. The 1950s are often regarded as a time when conformity and homogeneity overtook American culture—large chunks of American society cherished the same patriotic values and believed that the “good life” consisted of marrying, getting a job, and living in the suburbs. The 60s, by contrast, are often regarded as a decade of radical social change—the era when diverse groups of people, many of them young, educated students, mobilized to oppose what they saw as the injustice of their society and won key victories in civil rights in the process. The novel arguably alludes to 60s radicalism through Charlie’s advocacy for admitting women to Welton Academy, and perhaps through the novel’s ending, in which Todd and his classmates practice a form of “nonviolent resistance” much like that which Martin Luther King, Jr. would use later in the 1960s.

Other Books Related to Dead Poets Society

The novel fits in with a long line of novels, short stories, and films about boarding school life. Some of the first notable novels about boarding schools were written during the Victorian period; notably, Charles Dickens’ 1839 serial novel Nicholas Nickleby is partly set at a boarding school. In the 20th century, there were many American novels about east-coast boarding schools—perhaps the most famous is A Separate Peace (1959) by John Knowles, which shares Dead Poets Society’s themes of coming-of-age and institutional repression. Also, the novel alludes to many other poems and authors, most notably the great 19th century poet Walt Whitman. For Keating, Whitman is a symbol of rebellion and freedom. In Whitman’s most famous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass (1855), he writes, “I celebrate myself and sing myself,” a line that’s been taken by many (not just Keating) to represent the author’s courageous individuality.
Key Facts about Dead Poets Society
  • Full Title: Dead Poets Society
  • When Written: 1988-89
  • Where Written: Los Angeles, California
  • When Published: Fall 1989
  • Literary Period: It’s especially hard to classify the novel as belonging to any literary period, since it’s a novelization of a film. However, it’s interesting to note that the Dead Poets Society novelization fits in with the decade-long “wave” of novelizations and other movie tie-ins. Throughout the 1980s, film studios invested more money in marketing movie tie-ins, from board games to toys to books. To the extent that Kleinbaum’s novel fits in with any artistic era, perhaps that “era” is the movie tie-in boom of the 1980s.
  • Genre: Coming-of-age novel, period piece, boarding school novel
  • Setting: Welton Academy, Vermont, 1959
  • Climax: Neil’s death
  • Antagonist: Headmaster Nolan, Richard Cameron, Mr. Perry, and the abstract spirit of conformity that dominates Welton Academy itself could each be considered the novel’s main antagonist.
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for Dead Poets Society

Novelization Nancy. Dead Poets Society isn’t the only novelization Kleinbaum wrote—she’s also penned novelizations of such 80s films as Dirty Dancing and D.A.R.Y.L.

Seize the day! The most famous line, both from the Dead Poets Society film and Kleinbaum’s novelization, is “Seize the day, lads. Make your lives extraordinary.” Twenty-five years later, the line is still widely quoted, inspiring all sorts of people to take risks and be great.