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History Across Content Areas

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten, History Teacher

History shouldn’t be static. It’s not just a list of dates and events. History is truly about an in-depth look at a period-- its authors, artists, scientists, inventors, historians and participants. A study of history should include a close look at books by authors who study the era, who lived in the era, who wrote about the era. Let’s take the 1920s, a time of great change in the United States. The 1920s saw the rise of post-War isolationism, the literature from the lost generation, the music, literature and art of the Harlem Renaissance, the clash between conformity and rebellion, the growth of cubism, the rise of art-deco, the celebration of jazz, the birth of surrealism, remarkable inventions and innovations, and then the devastation of the Great Depression.

Summer is a perfect time to delve into an era, or a moment in history and read the novels, poem, biographies and histories of the era.  If I were going to compile a selection of books about the 1920s, my list would like something like this:

What better way to understand why the United States and the rest of the world failed to prevent the rise of dictators like Hitler in the 1930s (a question so many students ask) than to read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The novel provides an understanding of a generation of people who believed war was futile, who were disillusioned by war and therefore reluctant to get involved in a second war. It gives voice to isolationists, unable to forget the brutality of war. 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald brings to life the roaring twenties and the desire for money and feelings of emptiness that defined the generation. It gives a voice to the members of the lost generation.  The novel paints a picture of people having a wild party, people with a desire to have a good time after a period of loss and unrest.  Yet there is a foreshadowing, an ominous cloud hanging over the party, a sense that the party cannot go on forever, and it didn’t. It came crashing down.

President Harding beseeched the country to return to a sense of normalcy after a period of strife and conflict (from World War I to the domestic discord relating to the rise of unions, the Red Scare, xenophobia, nativism and so much more).  Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis explores the conflict between the desire for a return to the simplicity of a time past and Americans’ growing awareness of the world and of progress and technology. It raises the questions: Could the United States return to a simpler time? Was isolationism realistic in this new era? Babbitt is a salesman who lives in a small town, a town in which everyone tries to be “normal,” to conform to society. But Babbitt becomes disillusioned by the conformist world around him and questions the complacency of the townspeople.

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington provides a similar vignette of the period right before the 1920s.  It focuses on the battle between the changes and new inventions of the era and the resistance many people felt to these changes. The book would have resonated with people living in the 1920s as it gives voice to those who felt lost during the era, fearful that new technology, like the automobile, would sweep away old values and ways of life. In our current era, it’s hard to imagine such a resistance to technology like the automobile, but it was very real for the people of the 1920s.

To look at the cultural revolutions manifesting during this era, I would read poems like Langston Hughes’ "I, Too, Sing America" and the prose and poems captured in compilations like The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader by David Levering Lewis, or Jean Toomer’s novel, Cane.  The Harlem Renaissance was a remarkable cultural revolution and transformation that took place during the 1920s and gave birth to some of the greatest pieces of literature of the 20th century.

For a different look at the culture and politics of the era, I would read Hollywood by Gore Vidal, which is the fifth novel in his Empire series. Vidal has several fictional characters that interact with historical figures as a means of discussing the events of the early 1920s. The book provides a sense of the decadence of Hollywood and the corruption and complacency of Washington. The great dichotomy between the bland normalcy embraced by Washington’s leaders versus the wild hedonism of Hollywood depicted in the book epitomizes the clash of values between those striving for a sense of normalcy and those with a desire to strike out and be rebellious (like the flappers and movie stars).

Biographies and autobiographies also provide great insight into an era. Choose a historical figure, or a few, and read their biographies and autobiographies. If you wanted a look at a less-well known political figure of the era read Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean or Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg. To gain insight into the life and works of a Hollywood fixture try reading My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin. Or for a look at a controversial American icon who both spearheaded the dawn of the aviation age and bitterly fought to preserve American isolationism, read A. Scott Berg’s biography Lindbergh.

Or choose a whole different era. What fun the 1950s could be—read blacklisted books in additon to those written by the political figures doing the blacklisting while mixing in a biography of MacArthur and his role in the Korean War. Whichever era you chose, read across the content areas—find a scientist, an artist, a mathematician and a novelist.  And have a great summer traveling back in time!