Responding to critics who dismissed his work as mere propaganda rather than “true art,” Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author whose novel The Jungle (1906) exposed the ghastly conditions inside Chicago’s meatpacking industry, maintained that there was no inherent contradiction between esthetics and polemics and that all fiction had a political perspective, whether acknowledged or not. Sinclair, who might be considered the father of the American social problem novel, or at least its most determined practitioner with several dozen books in this genre to his credit, preferred literature that had something to say about the state of the world and that openly voiced “the cry for justice.”
Although the literature of social protest and commentary may have fallen somewhat out of fashion since the writing of authors like Sinclair, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright, it survives today in the work of popular novelists such as John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, and Michael Crichton, who have sold millions of copies of books, as well as authors like Lionel Shriver and Barbara Kingsolver, who may be lesser known but have garnered widespread critical acclaim. The purpose of my course “Social Fact From Fiction” is to examine the way that these and other novelists on the contemporary scene are using their work to explore poverty, homelessness, mental illness, race relations, domestic violence, climate change, and other issues. The novels are assessed both as sources of information on social problems and as political narratives “constructing” interpretations of controversial public policy dilemmas.
This course is run as a true seminar, with each weekly meeting devoted primarily to a freewheeling discussion of one assigned text. Because of a heavy reading load and an emphasis on active class participation, there are only a limited number of additional assignments, although these are carefully interwoven with the purposes and methodology of the course. Each student makes a class presentation exploring a particular literary or public policy aspect of a novel on the reading list. There is also a short paper requiring students to make the case for an “alternate ending” of one of our books. Finally, students write a major paper on a work of contemporary social problem fiction not discussed in the course, applying the framework of analysis that has been developed over the semester. Documentaries, interviews, and feature movies all are used as part of this seminar to present information about the writers and issues under examination.
As your instructor in this course, I draw on my academic training and scholarship in political science and in American studies to fashion a rich interdisciplinary perspective on the material. The goal is to combine elements of literary and public policy analysis, giving an understanding of social issues that goes beyond what either a literature course or a political science course, on its own, typically would provide. In addition to “Social Fact From Fiction,” every four years I teach a course for the Honors Program on political language that is coincident with the presidential election. This summer, I am also launching a new seminar on ethical issues in the realm of public affairs entitled “Can There be Morality in Politics”?
David A. Rochefort
Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor
Department of Political Science