Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Novelist as Historian: Or What They Get Right and Historians Get Wrong


It is a sad, but true, fact that many professional historians cannot write worth a damn. They write boring monographs, not for the public, but for other historians to read and comment on. History repeats itself, but historians repeat each other! Always remember that. They scoff at "popular historians" who write books that are, well, popular, with the masses. Some professor do have the ability to write very well but others suffer from having written too many academic papers which read like yesterday's grocery list. Some of the best history books out there today are written by journalists for the simple reason that they know how to tell a story! The art of storytelling, part of which makes up the second half of the word "hiSTORY" is lost on a lot of historians in academia today. But there is another type of writer who can often offer insights into the past in a much more engaging and dare I say entertaining way! That would be, of course, the novelist.

Textbooks are almost worthless in a history course these days, especially at the survey course level. First of all, even the best ones are boring as hell. Second, the students don't read them. Why not assign them a mixture of readable nonfiction books and a novel or two? They'd probably be more likely to read them and they might learn something. I can already hear the objection. But novels are not real! Of course not. But a nonfiction writer has certain constraints that a novelist does not. They cannot relay conversations that there are no records of or write about the inner thoughts of characters. Novelists can and by doing so we get a better feel for the persons involved as people, not merely cardboard cutouts. But novels aren't always accurate! I agree, they are not. However, nonfiction history books and yes, even textbooks, frequently contain errors too. Furthermore, historians push agendas in their books just as novelists do. Anyone who says that a historian is free from any bias is full of crap. Everyone has them. 

This past fall I tried a new approach. I used The Killer Angels in my 1301 class and All Quiet on the Western Front in my 1302 classes at two of the colleges where I teach. By and large it went pretty well. The only hitch was one of the schools told me that I was not allowed to use anything other than the textbook because I was "just an adjunct". That is an example of full time vs. part time professor privilege I suppose. But it was after the semester had started and so I still got to use it. In the classroom, however, it went much better. The students actually read the books or at least enough of them to be able to talk about it. To work it into the class, I had two quizzes which the students took online and a writing assignment based on the novel. I also referenced it during the appropriate lectures. In other words, students read these novels and learned something from it. Some even loaned their copies to their parents to read as well. If teaching is about, well, teaching, then why not use something if it works? 

Not all novels and not all novelists are worth reading in a history class. Bodice ripping Harlequin romance novels, while they appeal to a broad audience, are not appropriate for history courses as they are really more about bodice ripping than they are about history. Other novelists play a little too fast and loose with history for their books to be used as a learning tool. However, we also have novelists like John Jakes who, I dare say, knows more about daily life in 19th Century American than many academic historians do. Why? Simple. Novelists have to research down to the last detail, or at least good ones do. For example, it matters not to Dr. Stuffy McJacka$$ what kind of underwear people wore in the late 19th Century as that does not have any bearing on his massive tome The Importance of William McKinnley's Flatulence on the Cotton Crop in Bumfudge, Georgia. Such things do matter to the novelist. It is true that people read books because of the story, but a large part of that story is the characters. Novelists research people's lives in past eras from how they warmed their houses to what they read and how they spoke. Not all historians do this since many of them are more concerned with "isms". As I have said many, many times, students care more about the people the story than they do about "isms". Novelists have the historians beat in that regard as they do a much better job than many but by no means all historians.

In the current college world, multidisciplinary approaches are very popular and as such, I think incorporating novels into history courses will perhaps become more common as time goes by. Maybe even adjuncts will be allowed to do it if they desire. As long as professors are sure to make their students aware of the difference between a novel and nonfiction (which many college students, surprisingly, do not know) than everyone can benefit. The professor will have students who actually read something. The students will learn a little bit, even if it is accidentally. And all will live happily ever after. Well, maybe not that last part. Sure, some students will complain. Students always complain though as is their right. Believe me, I complained when I was a student too! And as a former police officer, I did my fair share of complaining then as well. Police officers are notorious complainers, but I digress. 

I freely admit that I am no Jaime Escalante or Freedom Writer Lady, but I like to think I know a little bit about what I am doing. I have my faults which I have no problem recognizing (the ones I am not aware of are pointed out to me by The Redhead). However, I do think that when it comes to teaching I am at least a little bit above average. Since I got Cs in some courses in college, that is an appropriate place for me I think! 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who would like to thank Mr. Cartwright of Franklin, TN, someone whom I am fortunate enough to know and who is a great, no, wonderful, historian for reminding me that to be a good historian, one must be a good storyteller. I have never forgotten that. 

See below for a list of novels which I think are suitable for US History Survey courses. Keep in mind that these books reflect my own personal/professional interests and you could easily add other novels about other subjects. You could also include novels written during these time periods but, with the older novels in particular like Uncle Tom's Cabin, the modern student can find it tough to read.

US History to 1877

The Killer Angels
The Black Flower
The March
Oliver Wiswell
April Morning
Rifles for Watie

US History Since 1877

All Quiet on the Western Front
The Alienist
A Time to Love and a Time to Die


John Jakes American Bicentennial Series, North and South Trilogy, etc.
Bomber by Len Deighton
And many, many others!

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