I'll offer this space as a place for Bird's reflections. And you can take whatever space you want to use in the comments section to add your own 2 cents' worth. Or you can e-mail Bird directly. His address is in the syllabus below (although I disguised it a bit to avoid the spamming trolls on the Internet).
Here's what Bird wrote and the course syllabus:
I'm teaching a course on Politics and Literature this fall -- something that I've wanted to do for some time, but hve been thwarted by various other duties. Now I'm doing it. I've attached a syllabus. What I'd like to do is this: produce a running set of commentaries and reviews as I go through the course (all informed by the syllabus, to begin with). I'm finding that this is a different kind of course than those I have historically taught, and I'm doing a fair amount of reflecting on what I'm doing. So -- would you/readers be interested? I'm not sure what I'd say, or how much, but my guess is that I'd post pretty frequently. And I'd obviously like to have some response, though who knows.
POLS 503 Literature and Politics
515 Blake Hall
Area Code SevenEightFive-864-9033
bloomis AT ku DOT edu
Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?
As a political scientist long fascinated by the actions and lives of politicians, I've always wanted to explore how fiction can add to our understanding of political life. Well, this is my initial plunge. I have used a bit of fiction in my Congress courses over the years, and probably will do the same in interest groups in the future. Scholars often infer or postulate motivations for politicians, yet it's tough to know what does move them toward action or belief. Novelists get around this problem by creating characters - by lying in essence to create the truth (or maybe a truth). To be sure, some politicians create their own novel-like narratives as justifications for public policy, but our focus here will be more on actual novelists than some presidents.
This course will approach the politics-literature connection through readings that emphasize American politics, broadly defined. We'll read a bunch of books, some short stories, and watch some films (and even a couple of television episodes). By the end, we should understand a bit more about politics and politicians, as well as appreciating how novelists choose the words for their narratives. We'll also read a play (The Best Man).
This is a political science, not a literature, course, but we'll focus on both the fiction and what political lessons we might learn. And since it's the maiden voyage for this course, it remains something of an experiment. If there are two major players in this course, they are Ward Just and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. The latter is the archetypal American political novel as it addresses the core idea of power (and its ability to corrupt); we'll also watch the 1950 Oscar-wining film (not the 2006 Sean Penn monstrosity). In many ways, ATKM stands at the heart of the course. More pervasive, however, will be the writings of Ward Just, a first-class contemporary novelist who often examines the inner workings of the political class, from legislators to journalists to Foreign Service officers. No one writing over the past fifty years has a better ear for the nuance of politics, and the considerable personal costs that public figures often choose to pay.
The class will depend greatly on active discussion; you will need to do the reading and keep up through out the course. High levels of participation are expected.
- Ward Just, 21 Stories or The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: 21 Stories and Novellas
- Ward Just, A Dangerous Friend
- Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
- Henry Adams, Democracy
- Bud Norman, The Things That Are Caesar's
- Billy Lee Brammer, The Gay Place
- Gore Vidal, The Best Man
- Jeffrey Frank, The Columnist