Teaching U.S. History with Novels and Memoirs

Last semester I went back to basics. My previous offering of Postwar America (1945-present) had been an experiment with a theme of interrogating decades. After this one-time experiment, which was fun but ended up being a lot of extra work both for me and the students, I decided to go back to a traditional lecture-discussion format. In my next offering of the course, I set aside five days during the semester to discuss five novels and memoirs to help students engage with the material.

I selected a variety of novels and memoirs, along with some popular non-fiction. Students explored a similar town to their own New England hometowns through Peyton Place. Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, a perennial favorite in college classrooms, prompted emotional discussions regarding race, civil rights, and students discussed the connections they made between Moody’s involvement with civil rights and current events. They worked their way through Hunter S. Thompson, which is always a hit with students, to Bobos in Paradise and Cold New World, which led students to consider their own material culture and aspirations in the twenty-first century economy.

In these discussions, students connected popular culture and developments in politics, economics, and international relations, and to the specific themes of the course. Their insights into the books as the course progressed revealed that they learned to see the books we read, the movies and television we watch, and the media we consume as more than entertainment, but as part of a historical moment and in conversation with past iterations. I began thinking about doing the same for the U.S. survey, but I soon became overwhelmed by all the possibilities. I have mostly taught the survey using primary source readers and excerpts from articles.

Knowing that many other historians successfully incorporate novels and memoirs, I went to Facebook to conduct an informal survey.

The results were fruitful. In a short period of time, I compiled from my friends a comprehensive list of tried-and-true books as well as some unexpected suggestions—some with few copies in print—to engage history students through story and narrative. Sister Carrie, The Bread Givers, The Grapes of Wrath, Invisible Man, All the King’s Men, Ragtime, The Great Gatsby—these classics all appeared in the suggestions alongside Jack Black’s You Can’t Win from 1926, the autobiography of a petty thief and highwayman that documents the underside of American life in the early twentieth century. The books were diverse, with Fight Club, John Muir’s My First Summer in the High Sierra, and James Goodman’s Blackout, an on-the-ground recounting of the July 1977 New York City blackout appearing alongside one another. 

With all of these suggestions, I felt overwhelmed by the number of combinations, the themes I could explore, and the classroom strategies that would make these excellent suggestions into useful exercises in historical exploration.

I thus decided to have my inaugural post on TUSH implement this crowdsourcing experiment on a larger scale. Instead of only asking for suggestions in the comments (which is also great!), how about we pool our collective teaching wisdom into a crowdsourced database for historical memoirs and novels (or other non-fiction books, as I selected in my Postwar American class) for the undergraduate classroom? Fill out this form, and include any tips on teaching these books. What do you do to help these historical voices come alive for students? What course themes do these books help you develop? Are there supplemental materials that are useful for students to have, or things they should know as they read, or parts they are often confused about or generate insightful discussion? I’ll consolidate the advice if there are repetitions, and TUSH will make the spreadsheet available under Assignments and Assessments. My focus is the second half of the US survey, but let’s open it up to all eras.

In the meantime, what books have worked for you? What’s the value of using memoirs and novels? Are there any pitfalls?

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