Lifelong Learning New York City

Lifelong Learning at  Swarthmore: New York City

Spring 2016:


History and Fiction (LLS 172NY)
Meets Wednesdays, 6:45 - 9:15 p.m.
April 6 – May 25, 2015
1095 6th Ave. (bet. 41st & 42nd), 28th floor, @ Dechert LLP

History and historical fiction both recount the past. But they operate according to different criteria regarding sources, methods, and interpretation, and perhaps even different notions of history and truth.

Historians write stories. They select and synthesize evidence and deploy rhetoric to craft persuasive accounts of the past. Authors of historical fiction use many of the same tools and techniques to compose compelling narratives about actual people, places, and events. Historians claim that their explanations are grounded in and limited by verified sources. Writers of historical fiction take liberties with the factual record in order to present tales that could have happened and to offer insights into past action and behavior.

This course examines the relation, contentious or amicable, between history and fiction. We will read five novels and view one film, set in Europe, India and the U.S. All invite us to discuss such issues as the differences and similarities between a fictional character and a historical personage; the ways that history and fiction achieve verisimilitude; the uses and abuses of historical sources; anachronism and fidelity to the past; and the relative advantages and disadvantages of history and fiction as modes of knowledge.

Readings (all available in paper and some electronically):

  • Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonder (extraordinary responses to plague in an English village, 1665)
  • David Liss, The Coffee Trader (fortunes won and lost on the world’s first commodity exchange, Amsterdam 1659)
  • Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (peasants, merchants, and princes on the cusp of the Opium War, 1838)
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved (the wrenching afterlife of slavery in 1870s rural Ohio)
  • Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard (the Risorgimento comes to still-feudal Sicily)

Viewing (English subtitled version on YouTube and Netflix):

  • The Return of Martin Guerre (imposture, or not, in sixteenth-century France)

The Professor:

Robert DuPlessis is the Isaac H. Clothier Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Swarthmore, where he taught courses and seminars in Atlantic history, early modern Europe, economic history, and the Italian Renaissance. His most recent book is The Material Atlantic: clothing, commerce, and colonization in the Atlantic world, 1650-1800. Previously in LLS he taught “The Italian Renaissance.”

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