Category Archives: MH

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.


MH writes to us about her upcoming course on “Classicism and the Enlightenment”

[MH had trouble posting this, so I’m posting on her behalf–DM]

I’m interested in the thread from Wednesday, October 25, 2006, on “What is Enlightenment (in 10 minutes or less)?” I’ve tried simply not doing the “historical lecture,” like KW suggested in the first comment, until I figured out that most of the students in my classes didn’t even know what the “Restoration” part of the course title referred to, let alone the “Revolution of 1688,” etc. Then, I realized, that if I didn’t teach them those historical contexts, no one would.

Like you, I’ve learned that storytelling, schematizing, and drawing distinctions both generates insights for students and is one of their favorite aspects of the course. For some reason, it’s easier for me to define Romanticism or even the position of women in the eighteenth century than it is to get across the complex concept of Enlightenment. Yet now I find myself in the position of developing a course on “Classicism and the Enlightenment” in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the Humanities major at [Riverbend State], which has forced me to come to terms with my approach to “Enlightenment.” Like many of us, I developed meta-contexts for Enlightenment mainly in graduate school. But how do you incorporate theoretical/cultural studies issues (and non-eighteenth-century writers like Kant, Marx, the Frankfurt School, Habermas, Foucault, Bourdieu) into an undergraduate course that focuses in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? The time period constraints necessitate teaching the “primary texts” of the Enlightenment. This, too, will have its challenges, as teaching philosophical texts always do. And there is a separate Humanities course on Romanticism, so “the sublime,” the French Revolution, and enlightenment seem out of bounds, or at best, a marginal focus.

So far, I know three literary texts that I plan to teach: Paradise Lost, Faustus, and Frankenstein. I’m tempted to include a reader, but I don’t know of any specific “Enlightenment” ones, other than the excellent “Race and the Enlightenment.”

Any ideas?