HIUS 4501: HISTORICAL FICTION (Alan Taylor)
This course will examine three novels about, and three clusters of historical documents from, the era of the early American Republic, 1776-1840. We will see how novelists have imagined a plausible past by combining imagination with the limited documentary record.
Most of the reading will consist of three novels:
James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (1823); William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1966); Gore Vidal, Burr: A Novel (1973)
We will supplement the novels with historical documents which served as sources for the novelists. These sources will enable you to evaluate the authors’ success in interpreting the past.
We will see how writers of different generations have differed in their deployment of historical sources and imagination to speak to people of the (then) present. In sum, this course is bifocal, revealing as much about the times when these authors wrote as about the period that they engaged with.
This course means to challenge and develop your abilities both to reason critically from evidence and to use your imagination to create scenes, characters, and plots set in the past.
PAPERS: There will be 1 short paper and 1 long paper for the course. The short paper must consist of no more than 6 pages in two-parts: (1) 2-3 pages devoted to a scene with dialogue employing the characters from the novel discussed during the preceding three weeks. You must deploy the characters in some way distinct from that used by the author of the novel. In particular, you should seek to create a scene that you regard as a better match for the primary documents. (2) You must also, in 2-3 additional pages, offer an explanation of the theme of your scene and of the choices you made to interpret particular primary source documents.
The major paper should be about 18-24 pages with (1) 10-16 pages devoted to a short story with dialogue followed by (2) 6 pages of analysis of original documents relevant to your short story. In this analysis you must explain your interpretation of those documents and how they inform the choices made in your story. Your goal is to convey some larger truth that you believe the documents hint at. You should set your story at the University of Virginia or at Monticello during the period 1820-1840. You must base your story on readings in the original sources. I suggest that you draw on the web-site “Jefferson’s University: The Early Life (JUEL)” and from The Jefferson Family Letters available through the Monticello Web-Site and “Rotunda” (UVA Library).
ORAL PRESENTATIONS: Each student will also have to make one presentation to the class, of about 8-10 minutes. You will employ either Powerpoint or handouts to support your discussion of at least one primary source document and appropriate visual images. Your goal is to identify the setting and at least one character for the short story you plan to develop. You will then field questions and suggestions from the class. These presentations will fall during the last six weeks of the course and your slot will be determined by either volunteering or a lottery.
THERE IS NO FINAL EXAM