What do you know about your family’s history? What kinds of “family stories” have been handed down to you? Have you ever wondered how accurate or truthful those stories are? Have you ever checked? If you wanted to, how would you? And what would it mean—for your understanding of family, your understanding of story, and your understanding of history—if you found that your foundational family stories were not quite true? These are some of the questions that will occupy us this semester as we study a range of American writers who have approached the complex question of the “family story” through fiction.
To approach these questions, we will read a number of “literary genealogies.” These will include novels by writers who are using the novel form to meditate on the question of where family stories come from and what they mean (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex). We will also read novels by writers who are using the novel form to invent stories—and even entire histories—for their own families, building character, plot, and symbol from the unpromising but provocative hints contained in the few scattered facts they possess (John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Alex Haley’s Roots). We will even read a novel by a writer who used one family’s real history to anchor the invented story of an old man who is researching his fictional family’s history—in Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner reprints the actual letters of nineteenth-century illustrator and pioneer Mary Hallock Foote, but presents them as the correspondence of his main character’s imaginary grandmother.
Our aim in this course will be to sort through the complex, confusing, and deeply intriguing questions that are contained within the seemingly simple concept of the “family history” and the “family story.” We will ask what history is (or what histories are); we will examine how stories and histories separate and merge; and we will work from these considerations to a broader reflection on the idea of family itself. Along the way, we’ll familiarize ourselves with the vast and growing body of electronic resources for those who do family history.
Requirements include regular attendance, weekly weblog postings, two formal papers, and in-class presentation.