What Has Worked: Reading Novels with US History Students

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Blatantly ignoring the students’ eye-rolls and sighs, I assign one or two full-length novels or memoirs per semester in my introductory-level history courses. This week I would like to offer suggestions for books that have worked particularly well in my classes even when students’ initial reactions have been lukewarm at best. Here are my top three:

Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet Wilson

This novel never disappoints as a centerpiece for class discussion in United States History I and could also be used in a Black History or Women’s History course. Wilson’s semi-autobiographical work, first published in 1859, describes her life in the service of a brutal white mistress in mid-nineteenth-century New Hampshire. On its own the book provides students an opportunity to contemplate the state of being free, black, and female in the antebellum North. The novel also works well paired with Harriet Jacobs’s seminal memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to engage students with comparative perspectives of black women’s lives before the Civil War. Finally, as the bookstore staff at my college can attest, the title on its own provokes immediate discussion.

Ragged Dick; or Street Life in New York by Horatio Alger

    The story of an orphaned shoe-shine boy, Ragged Dick is a light read with no shortage of opportunities for critical thinking and discussion in a United States History II class. In recent semesters my students have used the story to examine the mythology of the American dream in post-Civil War America. Did this “dream” ever truly exist? Was it the same for everyone? How can we interpret the “dream” in today’s twenty-first-century society? Recent immigrants to the United States have found the story particularly interesting. Last spring, for example, two young men in my class compared the protagonist’s experiences surviving on the streets of New York in the nineteenth century with conditions they had faced in their native countries and as recent immigrants to the United States. I assign Ragged Dick at the start of the semester as our first small group discussion.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson

    The moral ambiguity of a black man “passing” for white in early twentieth-century America captivates students. I’ve used this book in US History II and Black History with similarly enthusiastic responses from students. The son of a black mother and white father, the story’s narrator chronicles his lifelong struggle to carve an independent path with his musical talent amidst a backdrop of segregation and violence. Students are never collectively satisfied with the story’s conclusion, which to me only adds to the value of Johnson’s work.

      As a student I loved the way that literature offered avenues through which I could explore historical narrative beyond the course textbook. Now, as a teacher, I seek opportunities to draw connections between history and literature with my students. What book-length reading assignments -- fiction or nonfiction -- have worked well in your classes? Do you have a favorite book that you use every semester? Or, Is there something that you assigned with mixed results in the past that you would like to try again?

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.