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Potential Non-Fictional Prose Syllabus

Smacholdt's picture

 For the rest of the semester, I propose that we read a variety of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs in order to explore the experiences of people telling their own and other people’s stories throughout history. My suggestions for reading are:

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey- The book includes biographies of four important figures in the Victorian Era. These people include Cardinal Manning (English Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster), Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold (British historian), and General Charles Gordon (British army officer and administrator.) Strachey’s goal in writing this book was make the Victorian era more interesting to future generations. This new take on the Victorian era would be interesting to compare to other Victorian writings that the class is familiar with.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen- This book focuses on Karen Blixen’s life running a coffee plantation in Africa during World War I. It would be interesting to explore one woman’s personal experience during a vital period of history. What was her experience vs. other people’s experiences of the same time period?

Black Boy by Richard Wright- This is a fictionalized memoir about Richard Wright’s childhood growing up in the south of the 1920’s. This would be interesting to read both to think about this period of history and to discuss the implications and significance of a fictionalized memoir. What does this mean for the genre of non-fiction?

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X- This book consists of interviews between Malcolm X and journalist Alex Haley between the years of 1963 and 1965. This would be a good book for discussion because of the activism of Malcolm X. Also, we could look at the interview structure of the book, a format that we have not studied thus far in Non-fictional Prose. The book also includes an epilogue written exclusively by Haley, written after Malcolm X’s death. We could explore the topic of an “accurate” representation of Malcolm X’s life.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott- This book is about Lamott’s experiences as a single mother her experiences with her newborn son and his development. This would be interesting to study to see one woman’s memoir of an important time in her life. It may have some small parallels to Fun Home in that it is about someone’s own experiences with her family.

The Glass Castle by Janette Walls- This is about Walls’s family life and how her family would not conform to societal ideals. She manages to tell her story without too much emotion or self-pity. We could discuss the topic of impartiality in autobiographies and memoirs. How much impartiality is possible when tell a story about one’s own life? This would also be an interesting comparison to Operating Instructions because they both deal with a woman’s account of her life. 

All of these books deal with the stories of people’s experiences of their own and other people’s lives. We could explore these six vastly different books and look for parallels between the style and themes. We could also look at the partial or impartial ways that authors convey their own and other’s experiences. We could think about the reliability of the narrator and whether what the people are discussing is the “truth.” All of these books provide good opportunities to learn about periods of history, and to compare the experiences of people in extremely different circumstances.



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