Challenges and Rewards of Confronting History through Literature

Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM
Yarmouth Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Lynn Marie Kutsch , Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown, PA
In her book The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust, Ernestine Schlant offers what could be seen as a “justification” for using literature to teach (or to supplement teaching) history. Schlant writes about “the privileged position of literature as the seismograph of a people's moral positions,” adding that “historians, political scientists, economists, and journalists are constrained (or ought to be) by facts and other objective criteria, whereas literature projects the play of the imagination” (3). From the perspective of a language and literature scholar, I would like to explore the possibilities of “reading” history through literary texts, but not necessarily only those traditionally accepted by historians for this purpose, such as diaries and memoir. Instead I would also like to demonstrate ways that literature (fiction, novels, poetry) and historical texts can supplement one another in a German literature and culture course. By way of a few examples, (e.g Weimar Republic, East Germany, Holocaust, or even current detective fiction) I will summarize ways that instructors can blend literature and historical essays or even primary documents in order to help students synthesize the two distinct types of writing into a more complete cultural and historical picture of the individual in history. As Schlant suggests, literature picks up where the historical facts end and the imagination begins. One goal of my presentation will be to show instructors how to navigate the point of intersection, even confrontation, between the two. In doing so, I hope to reinvigorate discussions of the appropriateness, and also enriching potential, of literary texts for imagining and therefore teaching and learning history.
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