Notes from the Classroom: Using Fiction to Teach History

baldwin

This is a help wanted post! As a new teacher I want to experiment and try different strategies to reach my students. This fall I’m going to assign two works of fiction for my course The Making of American Society. I’ve never really taught fiction aside from leading TA discussions on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so I frankly don’t know what I’m doing.

Got any tips? Suggestions? Things you wish you knew before you tried to teach a novel?

That I don’t know what I’m doing doesn’t mean I don’t have reasons for turning to fiction for this course. As I mentioned before, nearly a third of this class will be a study of evangelicalism. Most of the students will probably know evangelicalism, if at all, as a political phenomenon. The textures and nuances of evangelicalism are likely to be opaque to many of them.

I really want to give students a window into the interior lives of evangelicals, and that seems to warrant using fiction. I want students to grapple with people who really believe in their bones that Jesus is coming back, that there’s a final judgment, that there really is a lake of fire to which they might go in the end. It would be easy enough for many students to see such people as objects of curiosity or ridicule. I want to confront them with a view from the inside. I want to give them an experience of stepping into a world where these beliefs are not propositions to accept or reject, but simply what is so—“Thus saith the Lord”—the ground of reality itself.

At the same time, it’s important that the text have artistic merit and historical significance. Unfortunately, these considerations probably eliminate the vast majority of fiction written by evangelicals. And a lot of books written about evangelicals don’t capture their interior life. I read The Damnation of Theron Ware, which nicely captures some of the challenges to evangelical faith—like higher criticism—arising in the late nineteenth century. But I felt like I was still only seeing evangelicals second-hand. The central character, the young pastor Theron Ware, seems to be going through the motions from the start. The animating impulses of evangelicalism may be present in his congregation, but they don’t move him.

I haven’t even read Elmer Gantry yet, which seems to be another obvious candidate. But my sense is that its scathing and satirical tone would work against what I’m trying to accomplish.

All of this leads me to James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. More than any other serious work of literature I can think of, Baldwin’s story allows the reader to glimpse the inside of this religious world. And since it’s about black Pentecostals, it also raises interesting teaching questions about how we think about evangelicalism and define its boundaries.

Though Baldwin had some scathing words for religion during his life, the text of Go Tell It On The Mountain is, as I read it, wonderfully ambivalent. Baldwin writes from the inside as one who has experienced the all-consuming religious world that he portrays. The result, I think, is open to a lot of interpretations. The book is full of guilt, shame, and repressed sexuality. One might conclude that this religion is an oppressive force. On the other hand, there are notes of longing and understanding and hope that might lead one to conclude that this religion is liberating, especially for poor black southerners caught up in the Great Migration. Whether Baldwin describes the religion of his youth as a force for good or evil, he undoubtedly describes it with extraordinary understanding and without condescension. That makes it worthwhile.

I can remember being taught two novels outside of english/literature classes in my undergraduate years: The Jungle and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. In both cases it was a really positive experience. The books gave me characters and ideas to latch on to and connect to broader themes about feminism, muckraking, progressivisim, immigration, and so on. Long after I had forgotten lecture content, the immersive world of the novels gave me some (hopefully accurate) sense of what American society was like in the early twentieth century. Hopefully my students will be able to say the same!

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