Fredric Smoler

BA, Sarah Lawrence College. MA, MPhil, PhD, Columbia University. Central interest in European history and culture, with special emphasis on military history and literature. Writes regularly for First of the Month and Dissent; occasional contributor to The Nation, The Observer (London); former editor, Audacity; contributing editor, American Heritage Magazine. SLC, 1987–

Undergraduate Courses 2021-2022

Literature

History Plays

Open, Seminar—Fall

Some of the greatest dramatic literature is set in an era preceding its composition. This is always true of a form of dramatic literature that we usually call by a different name (Plato’s dialogues). It is also true of some of the most celebrated drama, plays that we identify with the core of the Western theatrical tradition; for example, much of Greek tragedy. And it is very famously true of some of the greatest work by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Corneille. Some of the best contemporary playwrights also set some of their work in the past: Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, and The Coast of Utopia are all, in one or another sense, history plays. Setting a play in the past can create and exploit dramatic irony—the audience knows the history to come, the protagonists usually cannot—but there is no single reason for setting a play in the past. For some playwrights, history provided the grandest kind of spectacle, a site of splendid and terrible (hence, dramatic) events. Their treatment of the past may not depict it as radically discontinuous with the present or necessarily different in kind. Other playwrights may make the past setting little more than an allegory of the present; Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) seems to be a celebration of Victorian liberal imperialism. The playwright may set work in the past as part of an urgent analysis of the origins of his own situation; Michael Frayn’s fascinating play, Benefactors, was written in 1984 but set in the late 1960s and attempted to locate the causes of the then-recent collapse of political liberalism, seeking in history an answer that could be found only there. But another of Frayn’s plays with a historical setting, Copenhagen, does not necessarily focus on something irretrievably past; its interests may rather be concentrated on a living problem of undiminished urgency. Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, arguably the most successful work of 1960s political theatre, was a history play focused on what then seemed the explicit and unbreakable link between late 18th-century politics and the politics of the present. A play by Alan Bennett, The History Boys, sought to illuminate something about the political present by examining a changing fashion in the teaching of history. In this course, we will read a number of works of dramatic literature—all of them, in one sense or another, history plays written for various purposes and of generally very high quality. We may or may not discover anything common to all history plays, but we will read some good books.

Faculty

The Forms and Logic of Comedy

Open, Small Lecture—Year

Comedy is a startlingly various form, and it operates with a variety of logics; it can be politically conservative or starkly radical, savage or gentle, optimistic or despairing. In this course, we’ll explore some comic modes—from philosophical comedy to modern film—and examine a few theories of comedy. A tentative reading list for the first semester includes a Platonic dialogue (the Protagoras) and moves on to Aristophanes’ Old Comedy (The Clouds), Plautus’ New Comedy, Roman satire, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, Molière, some Restoration and later stage comedy, and Fielding. In the second semester, we will read Byron, Stendhal, Dickens, Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, and Tom Stoppard and also look at some cartoons and some film comedy. Both semesters’ reading lists are subject to revision.

Faculty

The Music of What Happens: Alternate Histories and Counterfactuals

Open, Seminar—Spring

The alternate history—which imagines a different present or future originating in a point of divergence from our actual history, a branching point in the past—is both an increasingly popular form of genre fiction and a decreasingly disreputable form of analysis in history and the social sciences. While fictions of alternate history were, until very recently, only a subgenre of science fiction, celebrated “literary” novelists (among others, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, and Colson Whithead) have written within the last decade and a half well-regarded novels of alternate history (The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and The Underground Railroad). Similarly, while counterfactual historical speculation is at least as old as Livy, academic historians have until recently scorned the practice as a vulgar parlor game; but this is beginning to change. In the early 1990s, Cambridge University Press and Princeton both published intellectually rigorous books on alternate history and counterfactual analysis in the social sciences; more recently, Cambridge published a volume analyzing alternate histories of the World War II; and, in 2006, the University of Michigan Press published an interesting collection of counterfactual analyses titled, Unmaking the West. This course will examine a number of fictions of alternate history, some reputable and some less reputable, and may also look at some of the academic work noted above. We shall attempt to understand what it might mean to think seriously about counterfactuals; about why fictions of, and academic works on, alternate history have become significantly more widespread; and about what makes an alternate history aesthetically satisfying and intellectually suggestive rather than ham-fisted, flat, and profoundly unpersuasive.

Faculty

Previous Courses

Literature

First-Year Studies: Forms and Logic of Comedy

Open, FYS—Year

Comedy is a startlingly various form, and it operates with a variety of logics. It can be politically conservative or starkly radical, savage or gentle, optimistic or despairing. In this course, we will explore some comic modes—from philosophical comedy to modern film—and examine a few theories of comedy. A tentative reading list for the first semester includes a Platonic dialogue (the Protagoras), Aristophanes, Plautus, Juvenal, Lucian, Shakespeare, Molière, some Restoration comedy, and Fielding. In the second semester, we may read Jane Austen, Stendhal, Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Kingsley Amis, Philip Roth, and Tom Stoppard. We will also look at film and cartoons. Both semesters’ reading lists are subject to revision.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: The Forms and Logic of Comedy

Open, FYS—Year

Comedy is a startlingly various form, and it operates with a variety of logics: It can be politically conservative or starkly radical, savage or gentle, optimistic or despairing. In this course, we will explore some comic modes—from philosophical comedy to modern film—and examine a few theories of comedy. A tentative reading list for the first semester includes poems by Swift and Yeats, a song, a Platonic dialogue (the Protagoras), and then moves on to a work on the philosophy of comedy, Aristophanes’s Old Comedy (The Clouds), Plautus’ New Comedy, Roman satire, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, Molière, and Fielding. In the second semester, we will read (among other things) Byron, Stendhal, Mark Twain, Dickens, Philip Roth, and Tom Stoppard—and look at Preston Sturges’s (and possibly other) screwball comedies. Both semesters’ reading lists are subject to revision.

Faculty

Forms and Logic of Comedy

Open, Seminar—Year

Comedy is a startlingly various form that operates with a variety of logics. Comedy can be politically conservative or starkly radical, savage or gentle, optimistic or despairing. In this course, we will explore some comic modes—from philosophical comedy to modern film—and examine a few theories of comedy. A tentative reading list for the first semester includes a Platonic dialogue (the Protagoras), Aristophanes, Plautus, Juvenal, Lucian, Shakespeare, Molière, some Restoration comedy, and Fielding. In the second semester, we may read Jane Austen, Stendhal, Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Kingsley Amis, Philip Roth, and Tom Stoppard. We will also look at film and cartoons. Both semesters’ reading lists are subject to revision.

Faculty

History Plays

Open, Seminar—Year

Some of the greatest dramatic literature is set in an era preceding its composition. This is always true of a form of dramatic literature that we usually call by a different name (Plato’s dialogues); but it is also true of some of the most celebrated drama, plays we identify with the core of the Western theatrical tradition (for example, much of Greek tragedy), and it is very famously true of some of the greatest work by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Corneille. Some of the best contemporary playwrights also set some of their work in the past: Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, and The Coast of Utopia are all, in one or another sense, history plays. Setting a play in the past can create and exploit dramatic irony (the audience knows the history to come, the protagonists usually cannot), but there is no single reason for setting a play in the past. For some playwrights, history provided the grandest kind of spectacle, a site of splendid and terrible (hence, dramatic) events. Their treatment of the past may not depict it as radically discontinuous with the present or necessarily different in kind. Other playwrights may make the past setting little more than an allegory of the present; Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) seems to be a celebration of Victorian liberal imperialism. The playwright may set work in the past as part of an urgent analysis of the origins of his own situation: Michael Frayn’s best play, Benefactors, was written in 1984 but set in the late 1960s and attempts to locate the causes of the then-recent collapse of political liberalism, seeking in history an answer that could be found only there. But another of Frayn’s plays with a historical setting, Copenhagen, does not necessarily focus on something irretrievably past; its interests may rather be concentrated on a living problem of undiminished urgency. Peter Weiss’s Marat/ Sade, arguably the most successful work of 1960s political theatre, was a history play focused on what then seemed the explicit and unbreakable link between late 18th-century politics and the politics of the present. A recent play by Alan Bennett, The History Boys, seeks to illuminate something about the political present by examining a changing fashion in the teaching of history. In this course, we will read a number of works of dramatic literature—all of them, in one sense or another, history plays written for various purposes and of generally very high quality. We may or may not discover anything common to all history plays, but we will read some good books.

Faculty

History Plays: Dramatic Irony and Historical Time

Open, Seminar—Fall

Some of the greatest dramatic literature is set in an era preceding its composition. This is always true of a form of dramatic literature that we usually call by a different name (Plato’s dialogues); but it is also true of some of the most celebrated drama, plays that we identify with the core of the Western theatrical tradition—much of Greek tragedy, for example; and it is very famously true of some of the greatest work by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Corneille. Some of the best contemporary playwrights also set some of their work in the past: Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, and The Coast of Utopia are all, in one or another sense, history plays. Setting a play in the past can create and exploit dramatic irony (the audience knows the history to come, the protagonists usually cannot), but there is no single reason for setting a play in the past. For some playwrights, history provided the grandest kind of spectacle, a site of splendid and terrible (hence, dramatic) events. Their treatment of the past may not depict it as radically discontinuous with the present or necessarily different in kind. Other playwrights may make the past setting little more than an allegory of the present; Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) seems to be a celebration of Victorian liberal imperialism. The playwright may set work in the past as part of an urgent analysis of the origins of his own situation: Michael Frayn’s best play, Benefactors, was written in 1984 but set in the late 1960s and attempts to locate the causes of the then-recent collapse of political liberalism, seeking in history an answer that could be found only there. But another of Frayn’s plays with a historical setting, Copenhagen, does not necessarily focus on something irretrievably past; its interests may rather be concentrated on a living problem of undiminished urgency. Peter Weiss’s Marat/ Sade, arguably the most successful work of 1960s political theatre, was a history play focused on what then seemed the explicit and unbreakable link between late 18th-century politics and the politics of the present. A recent play by Alan Bennett, The History Boys, seeks to illuminate something about the political present by examining a changing fashion in the teaching of history. In this course, we will read a number of works of dramatic literature, all of them history plays in one sense or another, written for various purposes, and of generally very high quality. We may or may not discover anything common to all history plays, but we will read some good books.

Faculty

Imagining War

Open, Seminar—Year

War is one of the great themes in European literature. The greatest works of Greco-Roman antiquity are meditations on war; and as an organizing metaphor, war pervades our attempts to represent politics, economics and sexuality. Efforts to comprehend war were the genesis of the disciplines of history and political science; and the disaster of the Peloponnesian War forms the critical, if concealed, background to first great works of Western philosophy. We’ll begin the first semester with readings from the Iliad, Thucydides, Plato, and Augustine and go on to study the Aeneid, Machiavelli, Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy, and Hobbes. In the second semester, we’ll look at the origins of political economy, among other things a discipline that sought to transcend the military metaphor; at Marxism, which remilitarized the language of political economy; at Byron’s mock epic, Don Juan; and at two 19th-century novelists, Stendhal and Tolstoy—one of whom described war directly, and the other used it as an organizing metaphor for erotic, economic, and political life. We’ll conclude with a look at some 20th-century literary, artistic, historical, and critical attempts to represent war with an allegedly unprecedented accuracy.

Faculty

The Music of What Happens: Alternate Histories and Counterfactuals

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall
The alternate history imagines a different present or future originating in a point of divergence from our actual history—a branching point in the past. Alternate history is both an increasingly popular form of genre fiction and a decreasingly disreputable form of analysis in history and the social sciences. While fictions of alternate history were, until very recently, only a subgenre of science fiction, two celebrated American “literary” novelists, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, have within the last four years written well-regarded novels of alternate history (The Plot Against America and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union). Similarly, while counterfactual historical speculation is at least as old as Livy, academic historians have until recently scorned the practice as a vulgar parlor game; but this is beginning to change. In the early 1990s, Cambridge University Press and Princeton both published intellectually rigorous books on alternate history and counterfactual analysis in the social sciences; Cambridge more recently published a volume analyzing alternate histories of World War II; and in 2006, the University of Michigan Press published an interesting collection of counterfactual analyses titled, “Unmaking the West.” This course will examine a number of fictions of alternate history, some reputable and some less reputable, and also look at some of the academic work noted above. We shall attempt to understand what it might mean to think seriously about counterfactuals, about why fictions of and academic works on alternate history have become significantly more widespread, and about what makes an alternate history aesthetically satisfying and intellectually suggestive rather than ham-fisted, flat, and profoundly unpersuasive.
Faculty