One of the greatest things about reading literature is the fact that it allows the reader to learn about so many other subjects. Novels, poems, and short stories often contain information about the historical, political, sociological and scientific events that were important and influential at the time the works were written.
For example, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible was written in response to the Blacklist. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was targeting writers, musicians, and other artists and accusing them of ties to the Communist Party and other treasonous activities. These hearings destroyed the lives and reputations of many people during that period, and Miller was incensed by this. He noticed some significant similarities between what was happening with HUAC and the Salem Witch Trials, and wrote The Crucible to further illustrate these similarities.
To illustrate the stupidity of the “guilty until proven innocent” mindset that seemed to guide both the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Blacklist, Miller had a group of teenage girls accuse various women about town of being witches. It’s one of the Crucible quotes that is much better illustrated on stage than in print, but the moment when Abigail and her cronies begin to shout “I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!” is an incredibly powerful one in the play, as it shows both how anxious these girls are to divert any negative attention away from themselves, as well as how easy it was for them to destroy the lives of their fellow townswomen.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is another novel that provides special insight into a particular time and place. Even though the setting and all of the To Kill a Mockingbird characters are fictional, the issues of race, dignity, family and bravery are so real that they continue to resonate with readers decades after the novel was written. Though To Kill a Mockingbird was written in the 1950s (published in 1960), it’s set in 1936 and many of its fans believe it to be about as faithful a representation of the South in the 1930s as they could hope to read.
Sometimes a work of fiction becomes so well associated with a particular historical time period that the work can actually be mistaken for historical record. It’s not uncommon for people to cite Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as if they were actual accounts of the Trojan War, and not two epic poems that were part of a brilliant oral tradition. This is the power of great writing.
Of course, it’s not advisable that students just read books like The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird when preparing for their AP US History exams, but looking into the art of the historical period one is studying can provide a lot of valuable insight into what people of that era were thinking and feeling. It can be argued that the art of a period is just as valuable a historical record as any document or artifact, and understanding what motivated, frustrated and fascinated writers, musicians and painters of a particular era will add a whole new dimension to any historical period.