History 385C: History and Fiction in Modern America


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History 385C: History and Fiction in Modern America
Professor Flamm Spring 2019

Elliott 110E: (740) 368-3634 mwflamm@owu.edu

For current office hours, please go to www.supersaas.com/schedule/flamm/appointments
Historical fiction is a popular window into the American past. But does it illuminate or distort our understanding of modern history? Does the quality of a novel reflect how closely the author conforms to the historical record or how greatly he or she transcends it? Do certain genres of historical fiction, such as war novels, capture the essence of events in ways that nonfiction accounts cannot? Are some periods of historical fiction richer than others? Is all history fiction to a degree? These are among the issues this seminar will consider.

  • E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime*

  • Philip Roth, The Plot Against America*

  • William Wharton, A Midnight Clear*

  • Ernest Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying*

  • Thomas Mallon, Fellow Travelers*

  • Susan Choi, American Woman*

  • Anonymous or Joe Klein, Primary Colors*

  • Personal Selection (see list on Blackboard – one per customer, first come first served)

All texts are available at the bookstore. The * indicates that it is also on reserve in the library.

  • Prepare a reading guide (RG) for every discussion session. Include a generous mix (two to three per chapter) of broad discussion questions (DQs) and specific talking points (TPs) with page numbers. Submit them via Blackboard and bring a copy to class.

  • Submit two reading essays (1000-1250 words) on the texts of your choice. The essays should analyze – not summarize – an issue, theme, or idea that is central to the work (s) and that you find interesting or controversial. For possible topics, consult the list provided in the syllabus. In the first paragraph, introduce the book (s) and offer a thesis with which a reasonable person could disagree. Develop and defend the argument with logic and evidence. Consider alternative viewpoints. In the final paragraph, restate the thesis (in modified form) and assess the historical value of the book or reading. Does it add significantly to your knowledge or understanding of the period? Failure to submit both essays will result in an “F” for the course.

  • Prepare a class introduction for the book I assign (with your input). Use the Internet to offer information about the author (s). Locate at least two scholarly or popular reviews, send them to me in advance, and present their critique of the book to the seminar. Offer your reaction and then pose a broad interpretive question to launch the discussion.

  • Submit a final paper (2000-2500 words) via Blackboard that compares and contrasts a recurring theme or issue from the seminar that you find interesting or important. Use at least two of the course texts (no outside research is expected or required). Make an argument – do not simply summarize or review the books. Double space with standard margins and page numbers. Include a title and use parenthetical citations (Roth, 139) for specific facts and direct quotations. The paper is due on ____ (see syllabus).
  • The final rewrite is due on ____ (see syllabus). It may enable you to raise your original grade by one letter (from a B- to an A- for example) or to a B-, whichever is higher. You must see me before you submit the rewrite. Warning: I also reserve the right to lower the grade if I detect a serious lack of effort and believe that you have wasted my time. Failure to submit the paper or rewrite will result in an “F” for the course.

  • Give an oral presentation (four to five minutes) in which you portray your favorite character (chosen from a common text – first come, first served). You may use note cards, but do not read to the class and be ready to answer questions.

Late papers will receive substantial penalties (one full letter grade per day). Any act of academic misconduct such as plagiarism or cheating will lead to an “F” for the assignment and a report to the dean of academic affairs. I will use SafeAssign (Blackboard) to review all written work for possible violations. To access reading material and submit written work, go to the course page in Blackboard.


  • Class participation 50 percent

  • Reading essays 25 percent

  • Final paper 25 percent

Regular attendance is required. More than one excused absence (prior notification) will lead to a reduction of at least one letter in the class participation grade. Any unexcused absences (no prior notification) will result in an “F” for the class participation grade. The discussion guides and oral presentations will count as part of class participation. Significant progress will receive appropriate recognition. You will receive a writing (“R”) credit if you earn a passing grade for this course.


Students should expect to demonstrate a sense of responsibility by using the restroom in advance and arriving on time – lateness is disruptive and disrespectful. Please put away computers and phones (no screens or eating during class – drinks are permitted). In compliance with federal law and university policy, I am always willing to make reasonable accommodations for students with learning disabilities or special needs. Please see me as early in the semester as possible.

Topics and Assignments (due by the start of class unless otherwise announced):
January 16: Course Introduction

Discussion: “How It Must Have Been” and “In the Court of a Monster” (syllabus)

January 18: Lecture: “The Progressive Era”

Handouts: Writing Worksheet and “Style Matters”

January 23: Modern America
Discussion: E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime

January 25: Lecture: “The Great Depression and Gathering Storm”
January 30: It Couldn’t Happen Here
Discussion: Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
February 1: Lecture: “The War Against Germany”
February 6: The “Good War”

Discussion: William Wharton, A Midnight Clear

February 8: Lecture: “The Black Freedom Struggle”
February 13: Fiction on Film (I): “Ragtime” or “A Midnight Clear”

Due: ESSAY #1 (Doctorow, Roth, or Wharton)

February 15: Fiction on Film (I): “Ragtime” or “A Midnight Clear”
February 20: Race and Reconciliation
Discussion: Ernest Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
February 22: Lecture: “The Red and Lavender Scare”
February 27: The “Great Fear”

Discussion: Thomas Mallon, Fellow Travelers

March 1: Lecture: “Patty Hearst and America Adrift”


March 6: Radical Rebellion
Discussion: Susan Choi, American Woman
March 8: Lecture: “Bill Clinton: Profile in Pragmatism”

Discussion: Topic memos (syllabus)

March 13: University Holiday
March 15: University Holiday
March 20: Fiction on Film (II): “A Lesson Before Dying”
Due: ESSAY #2 (Gaines, Mallon, or Choi)
March 22: Fiction on Film (II): “A Lesson Before Dying”


March 27: The Clinton Candidacy

Discussion: Anonymous or Joe Klein, Primary Colors

March 29: Preparing the Paper and Presentation

Discussion: Topic memos; structure and guidelines (sample introduction / conclusion)

Discussion: Character presentations (selection and preparation)
April 3: Fictional Favorites

Discussion: Personal Selection

April 5: Fictional Favorites

Discussion: Personal Selection

April 10: Fiction on Film (III): “Primary Colors”
April 12: Fiction on Film (III): “Primary Colors”


April 17: Individual Conferences
April 19: Individual Conferences
April 24: Oral Presentations

April 26: Course Conclusion


Sample Reading Guide: Get Capone
DQ: How did Eig’s grisly descriptions of the deaths of various gangsters effect your reading of this book? Did it help you to understand just how gruesome they were or did they have a Tarantino-style effect and just glorify them?
DQ: Who, in your opinion, is worse: the gangsters themselves or the public officials willing to take bribes and look the other way while people like Capone got away with countless crimes?
DQ: Based upon media portrayals of gangs both from Prohibition through today, it would seem that many of them are segregated by race and ethnicity. In his heyday, Capone rolled with Jews, African Americans and the Irish, along with his Italian roots. What might this say about his character? Does this make him more progressive? Or was he simply capitalizing on the certain skills a certain person had, regardless of their racial or ethnic identity?
DQ: Do you believe that before his demise, Capone and his family achieved the American Dream?
DQ: Do you think Capone’s wife Mae was aware of what Capone was truly up to? He conveyed in several complaints to journalists that his wife and mother were reading outright lies about him being violent mobster, and she knew he had had an affair with another woman. But, do you think that her shyness may have shielded her from the man he truly was and what he really did? Or was her shyness a coping mechanism to not deal with the truth?
DQ: What do you think has changed in gangland-style warfare since Capone’s day? How has the media’s positive portrayal of Prohibition gangsters shaped our view of today’s criminal outfits?
DQ: Do you think it was fair for Chicago law enforcement and eventually the US government to make an example of Capone? Did this effort backfire, instead making the public sympathetic to Capone’s condition? “Clearly, the cops’ strategy was to harass him.” (pg. 122)

DQ: Did Capone have the right to “rest” in Los Angeles? Since he technically had no criminal record and no charges could be brought against him, should he have been run out of the Biltmore in LA? “A columnist for the Los Angeles Times expressed sympathy, saying that if officials couldn’t bring charges against Capone, they ought to leave him alone. ‘Now, really, the U.S.A. ought to have some system of taking care of its men Capone.’” (pg. 124)

TP: Capone attempts to demonize law enforcement, gain public appeal/sympathy and make himself into a victim. “Clearly, the mayor’s new approach to government was irritating Capone. ‘I’ve been spending the best years of my life as a public benefactor. I’ve given people the light pleasures, shown them a good time. And all I get is abuse—the existence of a hunted man. I’m called a killer. Well, tell the folks I’m going away now. I guess murder will stop. There won’t be any more booze. You wont be able to find a cap game even, let alone a roulette wheel or faro game…Public service is my motto. Ninety-nine percent of the people in Chicago drink and gamble. I’ve tried to serve them decent liquor and square games. But I’m not appreciated. It’s no use…Maybe they’ll find a new hero for the headlines…That’s what I’ve got to but up with just because I give the public what the public wants. (pg. 122-123)
DQ: Do you think that the government has a right to hold obvious crime bosses without charges until they can come up with charges that will stick?
DQ: The Capone family asked an important question: is it possible that Capone’s syphilis drove his impulsivity and criminal activities that allowed him to rule the Chicago underworld in the 1920’s? Did it inhibit his ability to make responsible decisions, like for example, taking the advice from Torrio and staying out of the spotlight? Or could this simply be attributed to ego?

DQ: Do you believe that Capone had a fair trial? “‘Capone will have no trial of his peers,’ reported the Tribune, ‘It is to be by the men who reflect the opinions of the countryside, whose minds are formed in the quiet of the fields or in the atmosphere of wayside villages.’” (pg. 347) Could have Capone gotten off if the jury were more like him (i.e. city dwellers, fellow Chicagoans, Italian)?

TP: Throughout Capone’s career in crime, criminal activity and criminals themselves were held in much higher regard, and were seen in some cases as heroes. They were adventurous and dangerous, and dared to upset the status quo of Prohibition America. “‘If I am convinced by anything,’ wrote H.L. Mencken, ‘it is that Doing Good is in bad taste.’ Which meant Doing Bad was more fun than ever. The new generation’s heroes were edgier than their predecessors. They were risk-takers…They were individualists…They were overindulged, overfed, and oversexed, like Babe Ruth. Hedonism ruled.” (pg. 63)
DQ: How much of Capone’s success do you attribute to smarts versus luck? We know that Capone entered the bootlegging business at just the right time, but was he a self-made gangster or did he luck into it?
DQ: When Capone called for a peace coalition between the rival gangs in Chicago in 1926, how sincere do you believe that he was? Do you think he really wanted to smooth things over with his fellow kingpins or was it because he wanted less heat on him by law enforcement?
TP: Capone reflects the essence of gangster life: “‘You can get a lot farther with a smile and a gun than you can with just a smile.’” (pg. 81)
TP: Corruption within law enforcement forces police officers to consider outright murder as a way of getting criminals off the streets: “‘Is it strange that we of the police department, who honestly are actuated by a sense of duty, prefer to kill the killers rather than to subject them to a mockery of jury trial?’” (pg. 83-84)

DQ: Do you believe Capone to be a progressive? According to Eig, Capone set up a gym with all the equipment his men needed to the most efficient killers possible. They needed to be of sound mind and sound body. Also, his signature style of the drive-by shooting revolutionized the way criminals killed their enemies.

DQ: Not so much a question, but an observation: according to Eig, even though Capone was heavily involved in shaping politics in Chicago and was very powerful in his own right, he never voted, just like J. Edgar Hoover.
DQ: According to Eig, Capone did not live such a lavish lifestyle despite his enormous wealth. Was it to keep heat off of him by law enforcement? Was it because he wanted to invest in his businesses? Or was it out of habit due to his upbringing? As well, how did this breakdown stereotypes of the typical immigrant/criminal?
DQ: How did Capone’s moral side help him defend his enterprise and his lifestyle to the public?
Sample Topic Memo
Throughout the course I have noticed a casual correlation between American economic prosperity and the advancement of women’s rights. During the 1920s, an economic boom time, American women seriously challenged gender roles and sexual norms for the first time in American history. This was followed by a regression of women’s rights during the Great Depression, but a resurgence of progress during World War II and the postwar 1950s and 1960s. Not only do women’s rights make greater progress when the economy is doing well, but when feminists argue for women’s rights using economic data, there is less of a backlash against their proposals. The economic argument, therefore, is the greatest tool that American feminists can use to obtain their goals.

The most contentious element of this perspective is the argument that the 1950s actually empowered rather than oppressed women. The 1950s did enforce strong gender roles, but part of a woman’s role was as the consumer. The decade began a trend of overwhelming female domination of the American market, which has culminated today in a state of affairs in which 86 percent of American consumers are female. Although the 1950s represented a temporary setback in women’s rights, it created a power base that the second wave used in the 1960s and 1970s, to great effect.

I will use Elaine Tyler May’s book Homeward Bound to analyze the unexpected and unintentional empowerment of the 1950s American woman. Although rigid gender roles vilified working women, the prospering American economy allowed women to continue to enter the workforce. In addition, the burgeoning consumer culture put the fate of many men’s jobs in the hands of female consumers. I will then use Susan Douglas’s work, Where the Girls Are, to examine the gains made in women’s rights when both American men and women began to recognize the power of the female consumer. I will use Nancy F. Cott’s The Grounding of Modern Feminism to examine the American woman during the 1920s and 1930s.

Sample Introduction

When Thomas Jefferson penned the famous words “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” he had in mind a similar phrase by John Locke: life, liberty and property. The connection between economic independence and individual freedom became engrained in the American national psyche from the birth of the nation. Women, however, were excluded from the lofty ideals of freedom espoused by the Founding Fathers. When early feminist Marie Jenny Howe proclaimed in 1912 that “We intend simply to be ourselves . . . not just our little female selves, but our whole big human selves,” she was one of many women who had begun to question her role as a dependent (Cott, p. 39). Tired of their second-class status, akin to children and slaves, American women recognized economic independence as a key to personal freedoms so long denied them.

Throughout the twentieth century, the successes and setbacks of the women’s movement mirrored the ups and downs of the American economy—economic boom times corresponded with new gains in the women’s movement, while recessions and economic instability were the movement’s worst enemies. Although other factors throughout the decades hindered the credibility of the women’s rights movement—racial and class tensions, negative or trivializing media coverage, and the image of the “catfight,” to name a few—none had such a drastic effect as a faltering economy. Even during these economic downturns, however, economic arguments were the feminist’s best allies. During periods of backlash against feminist demands, economic arguments had the most success with American men, resonating with a historic cultural emphasis on the right to economic independence. Although American women did not always choose to exploit their economic power, as they began to account for an ever-larger sector of the economy, this power became their most effective weapon. When they made use of it, especially when the economy was thriving, American women made the greatest advances.

This paper will explore how American women in the twentieth century both actively and unwittingly benefited from American economic prosperity in their quest for greater freedom and independence. Following a chronological approach, it will examine the effects of World War I and the prosperous 1920s through the aid of Nancy F. Cott’s The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1989). For an analysis of the setbacks prompted by the Great Depression, Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound (1988) will supplement Cott’s work. Next, May’s book will lay the groundwork for a discussion of the unintended economic empowerment of the American housewife during the 1940s and the 1950s. The realization of this power and its implementation in the second wave of the 1960s will be examined with the aid of Susan J. Douglas’s Where the Girls Are (1995). Finally, the backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the feminist movement in general in the 1970s will be analyzed with the use of Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open (2006).

Sample Conclusion

In the cases of Hoover, Dillinger, and Capone, each man had differing motivating factors behind their actions. While they each were influenced by social pressures, pressures of their time and location, and their own personal values, on balance, their family values were what persisted throughout their lives and careers. For Hoover, all of these influences were elaborately intertwined. For Dillinger, his family values were pushed to the forefront, and for Capone, the societal pressures of his time and his location were what drove his actions. Their values instilled in their childhoods deeply influenced the rest of their lives, however long or short that time may have been.

Historically, these three men are significant. Each had an illustrious career that either made them famous or infamous. They each left a legacy that will not soon be forgotten, though some of those legacies are good and some are bad. Using these three case studies to examine the age old question of nature versus nurture helped to determine whether these three celebrities of their time were more influenced by their families or the circumstances in which they were raised. The fact that they were all alive in the same time period should not be ignored. The significance of having three such influential historical figures alive, and very similar to one another in different ways, is a credit to the time period in which they lived, and the overarching values that existed throughout the United States in the early part of the twentieth century.

By the time Hoover died in the early seventies, he no longer recognized the world around him. Gone were the values and beliefs that had been instilled in him and that he had carried with him throughout his life and career. He was alone, surrounded by a world full of people that he had little in common with. Hoover died isolated, even though he lived to see so much more than most. The world transformed around him, but instead of change with it, he stuck to the family values he learned as a child living in Seward Square, and was unable to cope with the new world he faced.

Presentation Pointers1

Professor Michael Flamm Ohio Wesleyan University


Speech Preparation

Double or triple space the text and number the pages – do NOT use a screen

Plan to scan ahead and indicate places for dramatic pauses and eye contact

Rehearse difficult phrases or words – check the pronunciation if not certain

Read and reread the speech out loud to whomever will listen

Give careful thought to the first sentence of your presentation

Introduce the speech with appropriate and relevant historical background

Proper Attire

Dress to demonstrate respect – business casual (no hats or jerseys, sweats or t-shirts)

Do NOT wear distracting accessories of any kind – keep the focus on you

Body Control

Begin with weight distributed evenly, hands at side and eyes on the audience

Once positioned, take a moment to become comfortable with the audience (and vice versa)

Retain the audience’s attention by not shifting your body or crossing your legs

Keep hands from pockets for extended periods

Avoid adjusting or fidgeting with clothes, hair, accessories, or notes

Vocal Delivery

SLOW DOWN, speak audibly, and articulate clearly

Make as much EYE CONTACT as possible and read as little as possible

Maintain volume and energy through the end of sentences

Do NOT apologize for “mistakes” – the goal is “connection, not perfection”

Adopt an appropriate tone (serious, angry, sad, or humorous) for the speech

Memorize the first and last few lines – always start and end with eyes on the audience

How It Must Have Been
The New York Review of Books

November 5, 2009

By Stephen Greenblatt (from a review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Montel):

What is a historical novel? Though Middlemarch is deeply enmeshed in the England of the Reform Bill, some forty years earlier than George Eliot’s own time, it is not, by most reckoning, a historical novel; it is centrally the story of the fictional Dorothea Brooke. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and its stupendous twentieth-century heir, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, are far closer to what we generally mean by the term. But despite the stunning moments in which we enter the minds of Napoleon or Hitler, our principal focus is on the fictional Pierre Bezukhov and Viktor Shtrum, along with a wide array of other imaginary characters caught up in the burning of Moscow and the Battle of Stalingrad. At issue then is not merely the setting in an era different from the present of the novelist, the interest in significant historical events, and the representation of identifiable, documented historical actors, although all of these are important in establishing the parameters of the form.

In the most fully realized historical novels, the historical figures are not merely background material or incidental presences but the dominant characters, thoroughly reimagined and animated. They are at the center of our attention, and their actions in the world seem to carry the burden of a vast, unfolding historical process that is most fully realized in small, continent, local gestures. Those gestures are ordinarily hidden from official chroniclers, but they are the special purview of the historical novelist. …
Historical novels have a further characteristic. They generate a sense in the reader best summed up in exclamations like “Yes, this is the way it must have been”; “This is how they must have sounded”; “This is what it must have felt like.” Historical accuracy is not the issue … What matters is the illusion of reality, the ability to summon up ghosts.
The historical novel then is always an act of conjuring. The works of certain gifted historians, especially those with anthropological and psychological interests, produce a somewhat similar effect … But such works achieve their sense of authenticity not only by recovering remarkable, intimate details from what Shakespeare calls “the dark backward and abyss of time,” but also by leaving certain doors closed on principle, that is, by frankly acknowledging the limits to the recovery of the past.

The historical novel does not have such limits. It offers the dream of full access, access to what went on behind closed doors, off the record, in private, when no one was listening or recording. And the great realizations of this dream … provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life. They set the dead in motion and make them speak: I am not a stick figure in a textbook; I was once alive, emotionally complex, beset with fears and daydreams, just as you are now. I will hide nothing from you. I will reveal to you what it actually felt like to experience in the flesh certain historical forces that are fixed in certain frozen formulaic phrases: the Italian Renaissance, the English Reformation, the Irish Uprising. And I will do so in a way that will make you feel, in the midst of a sober conversation about court politics, the touch of the real: “Try one of these sugared almonds.”


  1. What is the highest form of historical fiction? Novels set in the past but written in the present? Novels set in the past and written in the past? Novels with fictional characters who interact with historical figures and participate in historical events? Novels with historical figures whose lives are recreated or reimagined?

  2. What is your preference? What historical novels have you most admired? Why?

In the Court of a Monster
The New York Review of Books
August 16, 2012
By Stanley Wells:
Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel to Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall and in both novels she ambitiously attempts to reconstruct in fictional but credible form a series of crucial events in English history, specifically here those leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn. In the process her book provokes thought about the relationship between fact and fiction, the problems inherent in the attempt both to reconstruct the past and to transmute it into art.

History has no plot. It happens randomly, goes beyond human control. People plot, but things go amiss. The desire to capture the past is unquenchable but fruitless. A historian, whether of recent or long-past events, tries to tell it how it was, but the attempt is vain. History books have to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Whether consciously or not, their authors tell stories from particular perspectives; they choose who and what to write about; they select from the multifariousness of human experience, imposing order on randomness, seeing what they choose to see or what their subconscious minds put before them, setting their stories within a frame of their devising, revealing subjectivity even as they seek to convey an impression of objectivity.

Any account of the past requires artistry in the telling, but those storytellers who proclaim their artifice, melding the stuff of history with the forms and conventions of art, are more honest about the illusory nature of their endeavors than those who seek to convey an impression of impartiality. … Mantel herself brings questions about the relationship between history and art to the fore in a couple of revealing pages where for a while she appears to withdraw from the immediacy of her narrative to meditate both directly and indirectly on the differences between fact and fiction, on the unreliability of both oral and written evidence, and on the problems inherent in the attempt to reconstruct past events and, still more problematically, to divine the emotions that lie behind the happenings.

“What,” she asks—or should we say her narrator asks?—is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumor, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; [but] unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door. …

Mantel follows this generalized suggestion that we believe only what we find it pleasing to believe with a more particularized passage that relates to the difficulty of reclaiming the past and to the variety of sources that we may explore in the effort to find the information we seek. … On the last page of her book she reminds us of the impossibility of accurately reconstructing the past as Thomas Cromwell looks forward to his extinction:

When the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me … will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

… Neither the historian nor the novelist can force the past to yield up its secrets.


  1. How are history and fiction both different and similar?

  2. What are the mutual and different obligations of authors and readers?

1 These tips are adapted from a handout prepared by Mr. Eric Gnezda, MFA, Lecturer, “Principles and Practices of Public Speaking” (Speech 210) and “Public Speaking Workshop” (Speech 310).

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