A good textbook is a vital tool for the student of history. It can outline the story of history concisely and can help the student answer the basic questions of when and where and why. But adding elements of literature can be a valuable way to flesh out your study of history. The challenge is to determine which literature to choose and how to use it. When you study a work of literature as a historian, you will approach it a little differently than if you were reading it for leisure.
When choosing works of literature to read as you study history, pay attention to when the work was written. There are some wonderful works of historical fiction that have been written recently about events that occurred in the distant past, but if you really want to get a feel for a certain time period, it can be valuable to look for works that were written during (or close to) that particular time period. While a well-researched modern work of historical fiction can be a great addition to your study of history, the student of history wouldn’t want to rely solely on contemporary works of literature.
For the historian, the context of the work might be more important than the content. Pay attention to when the work was written and what the author’s point of view might have been. For example, we don’t use Homer’s Odyssey as a source to learn about monsters who lived in the Greek isles (obviously!) but to discover something about the world in which the author, Homer, lived. Through this work the historian can explore the beliefs, values, and fears of the ancient Greeks as well as what they thought about their own history. If you were focused solely on the content, you might wonder why a historian would read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But if you thought about the fact that it was originally published in 1818 (and later revised), you might see that this work raises questions about the Industrial Revolution and about the wise use of science and technology in ways that reading about the early 19th century in a textbook probably could not.
While a good textbook is important, incorporating works of literature can be a great way to enrich your study of history.
Here are some great examples that are among my favorites!
Among the many great translations of The Odyssey, my favorite is this one by Robert Fagles.
Younger students might like this introduction to the works of Homer. Then when they read the epic poem later, they will have some familiarity with the story. You could also look for abridged retellings by Geraldine McCaughrean and Rosemary Sutcliff.
When looking for a copy of Frankenstein, make sure to find out whether it is the 1818 edition or a later one. Here is one of Shelley’s original version, and this is another option. This one is the 1831 edition.
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Susan Eggers loves learning about the past and the people of our world, and sharing that love with her students. She attended Wake Forest University as a William Louis Poteat scholar, where she earned her B. A. in History, graduating magna cum laude. Continuing her studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she received her M. A. in Russian history and completed additional hours of graduate coursework toward a Ph. D. While in graduate school, Susan received grants to conduct research in the Lenin Library and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow, the National Library and the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg, the Slavic and East European Library at the University of Illinois, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She has presented conference papers across the country and has published several articles on Russian history.