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–

Current undergraduate courses

The Music of What Happens: Alternate Histories and Counterfactuals

Year

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, 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 Policemen’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 the Second World War; 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 recent academic work on the subject. 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 hamfisted, flat, and profoundly unpersuasive.

Faculty
Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

First-Year Studies in History and Literature: The Two World Wars of the 20th Century

FYS

This course will examine World War I and World War II, two vast and savage armed conflicts that shaped the 20th century. We shall spend a year studying these two wars and some of the literature that they produced for two reasons: These wars were among the decisive shaping forces of our civilization; and war is intrinsically, if horrifically, fascinating, calling forth some of the best, as well as much of the worst, in human beings. World War I, generally understood as the ghastly collision of the Industrial Revolution with a nationalist state system, ended with the destruction of three empires. It produced new and starkly violent regimes, preeminently Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy; and it produced an immensely influential antiwar literary response, which has shaped politics down to our own day. World War II destroyed two of these polities and gave a long lease on life to the third of them. It inaugurated the Cold War that dominated world politics for most of the latter half of the 20th century. It doomed the European imperialism that had formally subjected almost the whole of the non-European world over the preceding centuries. And it produced the modern United States as the world’s first hyperpower. These wars, which made our political and cultural world and shattered its predecessor, are thus profoundly worth our understanding. The course will begin by describing the world destroyed by World War I and then assess the causes, courses, literature, and consequences of both world wars. We shall examine the experience of war for individuals, states, economies, and societies. These wars transformed everything they touched, and they touched everything. We shall look at them through the various optics of political history, literature, film, economic history, military history, cultural history, and social history.

Faculty

History Plays

Spring

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 do not), 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; for example, 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; it 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 Copenhagen, another of Frayn’s plays with a historical setting, does not necessarily focus on something irretrievably past. Its interests, rather, may be concentrated on a living problem of undiminished urgency. Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, arguably the most successful work of 1960s political theater, 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

The Forms and Logic of Comedy

Year

Comedy is a startlingly various form that 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. The tentative reading list includes a Platonic dialogue (the Protagoras), Aristophanes’ Old Comedy, Plautus’ New Comedy, Roman satire, Shakespeare, Molière, Fielding, Sterne, Jane Austen, Stendhal, Dickens, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Joseph Heller, David Lodge, Philip Roth, and Tom Stoppard—along with some literary theory and philosophy, cartoons, and film. We may also read Rabelais and/or Cervantes. This reading list is subject to revision.

Faculty

The Music of What Happens: Alternate Histories and Counterfactuals

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, two celebrated American “literary” novelists, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, have written, within the last four years, 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 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 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