Ari’s Killer Angels post reminds me, oncet upon a time I used to teach historical novels a lot more. Lots of ’em are very well known and appear on syllabi everywhere, but some I think are relatively underrated. For example, I think E. L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel works pretty well for teaching the mid-century Cold War. When you teach a book like this, it lets you discuss the gaps between history and memory, and what the needs of narrative do to the nuances of analysis. Maybe now I would try teaching Roth’s American Pastoral, but I’m not sure it would work as well—it reads a bit too much like a polemic against the 1960s.

Then there’s fiction written or produced contemporaneously with great historical events that helps shed light on such events. For example, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano works well along with The Third Man and Casablanca for the American mission overseas in the 1940s. When you teach a book like this, it lets you discuss the gap between contemporary and later uses of the same events (compare all of the above with, say, Saving Private Ryan).

I say I used to use such sources more frequently, but I don’t now. I think this is because the quarter system is so demanding: ten weeks to cover large chunks of material. Maybe I should teach a seminar. A long time ago, I taught one using only novels to cover the twentieth century. (O’Connor’s Last Hurrah is a good one, too.)