U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Novel for Modern America

I teach a course at Marian University called “Modern America,” which basically allows me to teach different themes in post-1932 United States History.  Besides trying to find interesting and suitable monographs on this period–a challenge that changes every time I teach the course–I also like to have the students read at least one novel.  In the past, I have had them read a volume from John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy, but this time around I am thinking about using a volume from another trilogy, American Pastoral from Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy.  As many readers of the blog probably already now, Michael Kimmage has an impressive book on this series entitled, In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy.

I am interested in what other folks assign by way of fiction in courses on modern America.  And certainly I am interested in how people who have taught Philip Roth think of using one of his novels in a history course.  In the past I have used everything from Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.  Almost always, my students groan at first about having to read a novel and then end up having more to say about it than any other text–especially since I try to pair the novel with related monographs. 

So what novels do other people assign in modern America history courses?

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I usually show some part of The Wire but I realize that is a different thing than assigning a novel, esp. in terms of class time. Still, it is such a rich text with commentary on cities, deindustrializaion, globalization, the drug war, race and class, etc. that it can be very useful in thinking through big ideas.

  2. When I used to teach my “Long 1950s intellectual history” class I assigned, variously SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION; CATCHER IN THE RYE, INVISIBLE MAN, SHADOWS ON THE HUDSON, BY LOVE POSSESSED, THE QUIET AMERICAN, THE GROUP, THE BELL JAR, THE THREE SIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, LOLITA, ON THE ROAD, CATCH-22

  3. I have students read Updike’s Rabbit Run for a class that runs from 1945 to the present. You could certainly do it and Rabbit Redux. The problem there is that it’s a small slice of the population. We read Lionel Trilling’s Middle of the Journey recently in a Cold War class, and that went surprisingly well. Given that it deals with 1930s political ideas so nicely, it would be a good transitional novel, along with the Whittaker Chambers/Gifford Maxim thing. Anthony Hutchison’s book, Writing the Republic, has a nice reading of it and Roth’s American Pastoral among others. I had a class read Doctorow’s Book of Daniel once too, and that was a good one in that it spans Old Left/New Left concerns. It’s also an under-appreciated novel I think.

  4. Haven’t taught such a course or read a ton of American fiction but I’ll throw in a couple of titles that occur to me as possibly suitable in this context: Robert Stone, ‘Hall of Mirrors’, set in New Orleans in, iirc, the early ’60s; Richard Yates, ‘Revolutionary Road’ (’50s surbubia). Or maybe something by Joyce Carol Oates — I’ve read one of her novels, ‘Because It Is Bitter, Because It is My Heart’ or the title is close to that (it has a race relations theme among other things, iirc).

    Stone is (or used to be) one of my favorite novelists, though haven’t read him in a long while.

  5. Re a couple of the books mentioned above: I think a case certainly could be made for ‘The Bell Jar’. I would be perhaps less enthusiastic about ‘Catcher in the Rye’ for reasons I’m having trouble articulating right now, so I’ll just leave it at that. (Plus some years ago one could probably assume most students had already read it somewhere along the line, though that’s probably no longer true today.)

  6. One more: Russell Banks, ‘Affliction’.

    Also, I haven’t read Tom Wolfe’s novels, not even ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, but they would seem perhaps good candidates for a history course b.c of the big social canvasses he works on. A lot of course would depend on what slice(s) of the population, what themes/topics etc. you want to take up.

  7. You’ve got to end with _Super Sad True Love Story_, a subtly dystopian view of America in 15-20 years, in which our Chinese overlords are calling in their loans and Americans are too blinded by consumerism and sharing our personal information via technology to care. While perhaps the writing isn’t up there with some of the other authors on this list, the form is one that students will surely recognize instantly (journaling, emailing, texting), and the ideas have stuck with me long after I finished the book. Plus it predicts Occupy Wall Street!

  8. Thanks to you all! And thanks Kevin for the impassioned endorsement of this book that I had not heard of previously. My intention is to get the students going to darkened cafes and losing track of time while talking about novels in light of all the great history they are reading.

Comments are closed.