ENGLISH 195G: All the Presidents’ Books

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Special Topics Course for Educate ’08 All the Presidents’ Books: The Leaders of the Free World as Readers of Literature JFK was a fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and invited poet Robert Frost to his inaugural address. Eisenhower liked Zane Grey. President Lincoln was shot during a performance of Macbeth. Bill Clinton once delivered a spontaneous analysis of the same play at a party, impressing literary critic Stephen Greenblatt with his sharp insight about the ambitions and desires of men in power. President Clinton also loved the works of William Butler Yeats and the poet who dedicated poems to President Lincoln, Walt Whitman––an appreciation made notorious after he presented an edition of Leaves of Grass as a gift to a certain favorite intern. Notorious in a different sense for his extended reading of The Pet Goat as the Towers burned on 9/11, George W. Bush (husband of a librarian) also read more challenging fare, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, while ‘vacationing’ in Crawford. To paraphrase a slogan from a 1960’s television commercial, Reading is Presidential! This class, developed as a 1-credit course in conjunction with the final Presidential Debate in October of 2008, was designed to be a fun but also thoughtful jaunt through the world of the Presidential Reading list. Toward that end, we contemplated the intersections of political life and literary meaning in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, selections from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Camus’ The Stranger and Fleming’s From Russia With Love. These particular works allowed us to discuss the rights and responsibilities American citizens have, as well as different kinds of political authorities and governments, from monarchs and tyrants to presidents and representative democracies. Throughout the semester, we contemplated these rulers and ruling structures as abstract concepts and as terms that take on deeper resonance in the context of specific presidents. For instance, President George W. Bush announced a “Global War on Terror” as president, and presided over several controversial executions as Governor of Texas; what did he think about a novel in which the protagonist murders an Arab and awaits his own death by execution? These works also allowed us to discuss issues related to citizenship and to think more deeply about how political power in America functions. Although our discussions were primarily concerned with how the “leader of the free world” lives within and outside of the fictional, entertaining worlds authors create in literature, our readings often forced us to think about the ordinary people whose lives are affected by decisions made by those in power. Indeed, we were constantly struck by the large role that Presidential elections play in American life in comparison with those involved in local governments. This course was a wonderful reminder of Literature’s capacity to allow us to inhabit multiple positions and perspectives, if only temporarily, and think about what it means to be in charge or deprived of a political voice. It invited students to think of literature not as an escape from the problems of the day, but rather, a way to represent, comment upon, resolve, or reconfigure them imaginatively. And, it encouraged students to read about the upcoming election and, above all, to vote! Students in the course wrote four short response essays about these works, posting them on our class blog and offering additional comments in class and on their classmate’s posts online. They also completed a semester-long group project compiling a list of literary references used by past and future presidents, television pundits, and journalists, giving literature renewed life during the election cycle.

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