historicizing literature, literaricizing history?

Since I’m teaching some 18c novels alongside Roy Porter’s social history this term in my undergrad course, I’m always thinking about ways to teach students the distinct uses of literary and historical evidence in thinking about our period, since both constitute indispensable sources of information about the past.  In my institution, students typically come to my courses without any prior introduction to either the novels or the history that I teach, so I’m always puzzling over the sequencing of contexts and information.  [people might recognize some of these issues from our discussion of MH’s course earlier this year]

Here’s a quote from F.A. Ankersmit’s Introduction to History and Tropology, where he discusses the possibility of reading Zola’s novels, as opposed to the historian Zeldin, to gain a picture of social life in France under Napoleon III:

The cycle [of novels] would require a specific kind of reading: we would have to read the cycle in such a way that the relevant knowledge could be deduced from the cycle–whereas it is the pretension of history books to present their readers with that kind of knowledge in a straightforward way.  The difference is analogous to that between the clue for a word in a crossword puzzle (the novel) and the intended word itself (history).  And naturally this difference must have its consequences for the narrative organization of either novel or historical text (5-6).

And, I would add, consequences for the narrative organization of a course in the novel.


2 responses to “historicizing literature, literaricizing history?

  1. This is an interesting problem, Dave, and I think one we all face when teaching historical literature. Whenever we do long-18th era texts in my classes, my students ask a lot of questions about whether they’re depicting “life as it was lived” or whether they’re rhetorical in representing life as the author wants the audience to believe it is lived, especially with respect to race, gender, sexuality, and social class.

    As much as I can, I try to lecture on what historical context I know, but in a survey class like mine, there just isn’t time to have them all read big, complex narratives of social history. I assign my historical context assignment so they will be challenged to each find and read/skim/summarize a few major works of social history alongside their literary-critical exercises. But I keep finding myself wanting to challenge that distinction they make between novel-as-truth and novel-as-lie.

    What I often end up saying is that the eighteenth-century novel, on the whole, tends to represent realistic situations with interesting social details that might be quite accurate, but that we can’t infer that, because things might have ended well for a character, that a happy end would be normally attainable for someone in that position. Pamela doesn’t marry Mr. B “in real life,” Tom Jones hangs, Fanny Hill gets syphilis and never finds her first love–novels with that kind of realism have to wait a long time to be born. So while the realism of detail might be useful for imagining things like conversation, social class, and the everyday demands placed on normal people, they are often overly optimistic about social class, gender, and the consequences of fate. And yet we mustn’t just revert to the undergraduatism “Things were really awful way back then for women, who had no rights.”

    Last night, I had a long conversation on the phone with my mom about Olaudah Equiano, as she’d just seen Amazing Grace and wanted to know about Equiano’s book. I began to describe it to her, and she was quite shocked that I said I didn’t think it read as an impassioned treatise against slavery, but rather more as an exceptionalist account of how one extremely gifted man learned how to exploit the economy in which he found himself. Equiano sees himself not as one more face among the masses of unfairly subjugated peoples, but as an individual who must do what he can to survive. That kind of realism, about the subjectivity of a person actually enduring the circumstances of slavery, is what makes it an important addition to historical writings, which can take as their thesis that we all know that slavery was a massive economic burden placed literally on the shoulders of people who would only suffer and never benefit from it. Obviously, our students need both perspectives in order to understand much that is worthwhile about social history.

  2. David Mazella


    For any course in literature, historical “context” is a problem because it seems both “inside” and “outside” the texts that students read, and residing at a number of levels in the text: at the level of what you call “detail,” and also at the level of what I’d call “plot” or “meaning.” Schlubs like Tom Jones get hanged, alright, 9 times out of 10, but how many men find themselves in situations where they might have mistakenly slept with their moms, etc. etc.

    So the “meaning” of those plots and their unfolding (birth, work, marriage, and death, for the most part) are usually the most conventional aspects of the novels, though subject to interesting variations if we know where to look (minor characters, local descriptions, autobiographical or -referential passages, etc.). I try to subject those ideologically-driven plots to the counter-pressures of the social history, which shows, for example, what happens to girls like Pamela if they DO submit to Mr. B.

    After years of teaching Porter side-by-side with the novels, a gesture which felt liberating to my New Critically trained students of ten years ago, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to work through these questions more systematically, and force them to do more research on their own about the novel and its social contexts. This will probably mean fewer novels and more criticism and history, but so be it.

    But I agree with you that the immediate, undegraduate impulse is to treat the novel, or even the autobiographical text, as an unmediated expression or impassioned treatise, or what Ankersmit calls the “intended word,” rather than the word in the crossword puzzle that needs to be sought after through a specific kind of reading. Our job is to show them how to do that specific kind of reading.