Fall 2008

Telling Lives


Martha A. Sandweiss (Section 01)


Can the story of a single human life offer a useful way of understanding the American past? How does a writer construct such a story? To what extent can a reader trust it as a kind of historical document? Through a close reading of a broad array of biographies, we’ll ask how writers know what they know and how they assemble facts and speculation to narrate a life. We’ll also consider historical fiction and memoirs to raise questions about the differences between history, memory, and works of the imagination. In addition, we will look at painted and photographic portraits to consider non-literary ways of describing human character. This class will make extensive use of the college archives and art museum, and all students will get to try their hand at using public documents and historical records to construct the life of an unsung figure from the American past. Among the writers we will read are Natalie Zemon Davis, Wallace Stegner, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Fall semester. Professor Sandweiss.