In School in Germany: History and Literature DO Mix.


Historic Fiction- a term that many people should know about when becoming teachers. This type of genre features a fictitious story with characters that do not exist in real life, but whose background and setting exists in reality. Tens of thousands of such literary works, published in the past 15 years, can be found on the shelves of libraries and book stores, waiting for people to purchase them. One of which is the focus of this article: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Published in 1925, the Great Gatsby features four main characters and three other characters that have supporting roles:  Nick Caraway (the bonds salesman and narrator), Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Nick’s college friend and cousin respectively) and Jay Gatsby (Nick’s neighbor who has a love affair with Daisy) are the main four; Jordan Baker (Daisy’s friend and Nick’s love interest), and George and Myrtle Wilson (the former,  a gas station owner, the latter, his wife who has an affair with Tom) as supporting characters.  These fictional characters find themselves on Long Island with Tom and Daisy living in a mansion at East Egg, the rest are at West Egg. The story presents the two polar sides of the Roaring 20s that made the era rather gilded. There was the rather rich and extravagant side of society, featuring parties, flappers and utter carelessness. There was also the poor and desperate side of society, where people struggling to survive would do anything just to make a buck.  The book was converted into a Hollywood film twice, and regardless of which version of Gatsby you watched or like (I prefer the Robert Redford 1974 version clearly over the DiCaprio version), we all know what happens when rich and poor collide in the story.
But Gatsby is only a fraction of the point that I’m getting to, which is the fact that one can use literature in history class as a way of providing the students with an inside look at certain periods of time and what society looked like. Part of the reason for such literature has to do with what the author himself experienced in his life. Fitzgerald himself was involved in the scene during his visit on Long Island prior to his book and saw some of the things that were typical of that time, both good and bad. Another part has to do with author’s observing the immorals and even talking to people about them, then writing about it in a different form. In either case, one could consider both of them a form of muckraking. By looking at the literature, one can actually get into the story and try and understand the situation in relation to the historical events of the period from one’s own point of view. By doing so, students will have an opportunity to share their views in class, pending on how the teacher poses the questions in connection with the literature and its historic context.

There are two ways of handling literature in connection with history. One would be to go through the book, chapter by chapter, providing questions and exercises along the way. Traditional and good for those with a good command of the language, yet if the language level is lower because the working language is foreign, some rewriting and adaptation may be needed, or one can go further by taking out some excerpts and integrating them into the theme.

The other is using the film based on the book, but choosing the scenes that are appropriate to the theme presented in class. This was the approach I chose while discussing about the Roaring 20s and including the scenes at the beginning of The Great Gatsby: East Egg and its richness in the literal sense and West Egg, where Nick’s small hut and the run down gas station are overshadowed by Gatsby’s Mansion.  Can you tell the difference in the following clips? And do they fit the image of the Roaring 20s?



When choosing this approach, one has to carefully choose the film that best fits the theme to be discussed in history. The 1974 version of Gatsby best fits the image of the 1920s and is not as overdone as the remade version of last year. But more importantly is the fact that one has to choose the scenes that best fits the topic and where you can ask the students some questions. This one will require more time as you will need to watch the film and pick the scenes that best fit. Painstaking it is, but it is worth it, especially if you have family members who are willing to play along. 😉

How you use literature in history or even social studies classes depends on the group you are teaching. Students in grades 9-12 as well as college students will more likely read the novel you choose than those from grade 8 down. But it also depends on their learning level, their language skills (especially if you teach a bilingual class), and their willingness to learn new things but in a way that it does not require the traditional form of Frontalunterricht (frontal teaching where the teacher is the center of attention and the blackboard is used almost exclusively).  It is a question of how you, as the teacher, prepare your class and how you try and integrate the literature, let alone the film based on the literary piece.  If you feel the students are up to the challenge, try it. You will be amazed with the results. This was the case with my experiment, and if you have the right calculations, like I did, you can have a really productive session with discussion and fun.


Author’s Note: Many German universities are introducing interdisciplinary studies where literature, politics, culture and history are mixed together and offered to students, who are interested in such studies. Over 20 universities are offering North American studies (or similar), and counting. What a student can do with such a degree will be discussed later in the Files.