Villain, Hero & Somewhere in Between?

syllabus for

American History as Fact and Fiction

How do we know what we know?
Where is the line between fact and fiction?

JHU CS 464.530

Instructor: Dr. Papenfuse
Office: 410-260-6401;
Home: 410-467-6137

When: Wednesdays, 6:15-7:55 p.m.

Where: Krieger 307, Computer Lab

General Requirements: This is a web-based course in which we will be learning to use web-based tools to prepare and present class assignments. The most current syllabus, some of the reading material, and assignments will be available at the instructor's  web site. All students will be expected to prepare their assignments in either HTML format or as a standard word processing document (instruction will be given in class). Students must have an EMAIL account which will be the means by which the instructor will critique assignments and communicate with students outside of the classroom (except for appointments scheduled in advance on an as-needed basis). It is my understanding that all students can obtain EMAIL accounts from the University without additional charge, but personal accounts through any service provider will work as well. All Email accounts will be accessible from the classroom as well as from the Krieger labs. Having a personal computer with web access is NOT required. All work for the class can be done in the University labs and libraries (on any campus) or on any word processor and saved to disk to be Emailed to the instructor at the assigned times. No prior computer, email, or web experience is necessary to register for the course. Instruction in the use of the computer and the web will be given in class.

All assignments will be coordinated through the following homepage:

Week 1

Introduction to the use of the Web in and out of the classroom. Instructions on use of web based tools for research and preparing assignments.

Week 2

In this course students compare and contrast interpretations of three notable Americans, Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln, and Mary Todd Lincoln, from the perspective of the novelist and the biographer. The subjects are placed in the context of their times, and students probe the degree to which commonly held perceptions of historical figures and past events are derived from imagination and questionable interpretation. Particular attention is paid to the methods used by the biographer and the novelist to lend credence to their interpretations of their subjects.

Discussion begins with the differences between plagiarism and literary license. We will then examine what the class expects to find and enjoy in a novel and in a biography, drawing on examples of books students have already read.

Apart from the reading, viewing of excerpts from screen adaptations of biographies and novels, and class discussion, there are three short (1500-2000 word) papers required for successful completion of the course.

In preparing the three short papers for this course guidelines provided by Dr. Nancy Norris to MLA students are followed:

Although there are several acceptable methods of documentation, the simplest is parenthetical citations outlined in Kate L. Turabian, A Manual For Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations - see any fairly recent edition such as the 5th edition, 1987, pp. 111-119 (for parenthetical citations), and pp. 274-277 (for how to list sources at the end of a paper). For citing web sources and other electronic media see the policy on citation and plagiarism. (Note: Because of the volatile nature of information on the Web, saving the most important information derived from Web sources to a local file is generally a good idea if you have the resources to do so. Files can be easily downloaded using Netscape Communicator's editor.) Borrowing ideas for presentation in a web format from other web sites is encouraged and does not constitute plagiarism as long as the presentation contains either an explanatory section indicating the sources and methods used in creating the presentation or a hyperlink to an explanatory note.

Villain?: Aaron Burr


a novel:

a biography (one of the following, depending upon availability): commentary:
Week 3

Begin discussion of Vidal's Burr. Concentrate on the ways in which Vidal portrays key events and key figures. Attention should be paid to how convincingly he handles his settings and his subjects.

Week 4

Conclude discussion of Vidal's Burr.

Week 5

Begin discussion of biography of Burr. Concentrate on the areas of disagreement and agreement between Vidal and the biographer, using Vidal's emphases as a starting point.

Week 6

Conclude discussion of Burr biography. Examination of what the biographer seems to think makes for good biography and a discussion of how well he achieves his goal. Read and discuss Nolan, Aaron Burr and the American Literary Imagination, chapters 2, 4, & 5.

Hero?: Abraham Lincoln


a novel: Vidal, Gore, 1925-. Lincoln. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Paperback by Ballantine, $4.95.

a biography: Thomas, Benjamin Platt, 1902-1956. Abraham Lincoln. New York, N. Y.: Modern Library, [1952] 1968; selected passages from: Stephen G. Oates, With Malice Towards None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York, N. Y.: Harper & Row, 1977.  NOTE: If Thomas is out of print, David Donald's recent biography of Lincoln will be substituted and selected passages from Thomas will be assigned from files on electronic reserve.

commentary: articles from New York Review of Books by Gore Vidal and historians concerning Vidal's historical novels


Donald, David. Lincoln. 1995.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Era of the Civil War. New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 1988. Paper?

Oates, Stephen G. With Malice Towards None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York, N. Y.: Harper & Row, 1977. Paperback

Oates, Stephen G. Abraham Lincoln, The Man Behind the Myths. New York, N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1984. Paperback

Week 7 (First Paper due)

Begin discussion of the Gore Vidal's novel about Lincoln. How does Vidal portray the person and the times? What does he select as the most important events, the most important characteristics of his principal characters?

A short paper (1500-2000 words) is due which reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of the novel and biography as it relates to Aaron Burr (including class discussion).

Week 8

Continue discussion of Vidal's Lincoln.

Week 9

Begin discussion of  Thomas's Lincoln., review Thomas in light of the biography of Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates.  In what ways do Vidal and the biographers of Lincoln agree? In what ways do they differ? Exchange between Vidal and historians in the New York Review of Books is reviewed briefly electronically and assigned for discussion next class and the followup discussion at the last class.

Week 10

Conclude discussion of Thomas's  Lincoln and review the debate between Vidal and the historians. Read selected passages from Oates's biography of Lincoln and Thomas. In the case of Oates, discuss what may or may not constitute plagiarism.

Somewhere In Between?:
Mary Todd Lincoln


Vidal, Gore, 1925-. Lincoln. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Paperback by Ballantine, $4.95.

Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. New York, N. Y.: Norton, 1987. Hardbound only?, $19.95.

Selected chapters from Love is Eternal by Irving Stone , and essay by Stone on the novelist and the historian.


Randall, Ruth Painter. Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953.

Stone, Irving. Love is Eternal. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954. Paperback, $4.95.

Library of Congress. Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund. Three Views of the Novel. [Includes Irving Stone, "The Biographical Novel"]. Washington: Reference Department, Library of Congress, 1957.

Week 11 (second paper due)

Begin internal criticism, analysis of Vidal's Lincoln from the perspective of how he treats Mary Todd Lincoln, comparing it to selected passages from Irving Stone's Love is Eternal. Review electronic version of Stone's essay on the novelist and the historian for subsequent discussion.

Second paper on Lincoln as portrayed by the biographer and the novelist is due (1500-2000 words).

Week 12

View selected segments from the television mini series of Vidal's novel and compare to the book and to the selected passages from Stone. Conclude discussion of Vidal (book and dramatization of book) & Stone. Begin discussion of Baker's biography of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Week 13

Continue discussion of Baker's Mary Todd Lincoln.

Week 14

Conclude discussion of Baker's Mary Todd Lincoln. Begin class debate over the strengths and weaknesses of American History as Literature and Biography.

Week 15 (final paper due)

Final paper due on Mary Todd Lincoln (same format as previous papers, 1500-2000 words). Class meets at our home, 206 Oakdale Road, Baltimore, MD 21210

Conclude debate with discussion focusing on:
Is Vidal right about the Scholar/Squirrels?


Bowen, Catherine Drinker, 1897-?. Biography: The Craft and the Calling. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

Garraty, John Arthur, 1920-. The Nature of Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Possibly still in print by Garland for $40.00.

Lomask, Milton. The Biographer's Craft. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Merrill, Dana Kinsman, 1890-?. American Biography: Its Theory and Practice. Portland, Me.: Bowker Press, 1957.

Oates, Stephen, editor. Biography as High Adventure: Life-writers Speak on Their Art. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts, 1986.

Final grade will be based upon all three papers and class discussion (including last class); each essay is worth 30 points of the total grade; discussion is worth 10 points.   All papers are due by 10 a.m. on the day noted on the schedule. 5 points will be deducted (on the final grade scale of 100) for each day a paper is late. Not being submitted by the first half hour of class on the day due constitutes a day late.

revised, 1/11/2000, copyright ECP

return to Ed Papenfuse's Teaching in the Age of the Internet homepage