Eric and Ari's discussions about how to best incorporate literature into history classroom inverts the problem I face when designing a syllabus: "How do I demonstrate the significance of a novel outside the context in which it acquired its importance?"* I feel compelled to contextualize for reasons best understood by the example of Huck Finn. Consider Huck's classic epiphany in Chapter XXXI. He's written a note informing Miss Watson where she can find her runaway slave, only to
get to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
"All right, then, I'll go to hell"—and tore it up.
The reader's annoyance with Huck dissipates because Twain allows them to participate in his recognition of shared humanity. Twain yokes together those clauses with semi-colons, crafting a sentence like a cartoon snowball on a mountaintop. With a gentle nudge, he tips it down the mountainside, and minutes later everyone cheers as two stories of packed snow smashes into prevailing wisdom.
Students cry when they read this passage. They talk of Huck's heroism in voices trembling with patriotic pride:
"How brave! For this boy to forsake the only moral order he has known! 'And a child shall lead them!' How brave of Twain to condemn the South in this manner!"
I allow them to talk in this vein for a couple of minutes, then ask them to open their book to the title page and read what it says below the title:
Then I ask them when it was published. They don't know what to make of any of it.
"It was written twenty years after the end of the Civil War," I say.
"That means slavery had been abolished two decades earlier."
"How brave would it be to condemn Hitler now?"
Little bulbs appear above a few heads.
"How brave would it have been to condemn slavery after it had been abolished?"
Now they get it.
How a work relates to the historical moment it represents is crucial interpreting its meaning. Huck Finn would've been a different novel had it been written in 1844. It would've been the braver novel the students ardently desire it to be. It would be another novel still were it written in 2004, especially if it kept the conceit of having been written in 1884 about events that took place in 1844. The question I would pose to Ari and Eric—the one I fumbled here—would be whether they're more concerned with how a work represents or embodies the ethos of a particular historical moment.
The Killer Angels says more about what people thought about Gettysburg in 1975 than the battle itself: its representation of the battle tells us about what passed for realism in the 1970s, i.e. how the grit of 19th Century American English was presented, how much of the ubiquitous grime of 19th Century America was preserved, &c. [Edited because it'd been a long, long day.]
*Table questions about The Great Western Canon for the moment.