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Using Classic and Contemporary Literature to Explore Themes in Law and Politics
Unformatted Document Text:  Dannhauser claims that literature can also provide descriptive information that political scientists desire. 9 We can learn something about slavery from reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin or about labor conditions in turn of the century slaughterhouses by reading The Jungle. A literary text need not be a classic to provide us with information. Lesser books or short stories might even be better in this regard because they often respond to specific historical events; great books often transcend the period in which they are authored. We might learn some history from reading fiction but the goal of most literature is not to provide factual information. Literature can teach us something not conveyed by social science. Social science teaches facts but facts don’t speak for themselves – they are often in need of imaginative interpretation and evaluation. Sure, we can read about the causes and consequences of the Dust Bowl and the westward migration of sharecropping families in a textbook or research article. But we can experience that historical event more imaginatively by reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Literature often goes beyond the level of providing information. First, it can help us harness, channel, and even change the political passions and values that we bring to the political arena. As Dannhauser noted, literature “teaches us about injustice mostly be creating in us a loathing of patent injustice.” 10 Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s short story “The Lynching of Jube Benson” teaches us about the evils of mob violence and lynchings and Tom Robinson’s fate in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird instills in us a loathing of racism in criminal justice. We need to be careful, however, about the historical value of literature. There is a reason why it is called fiction. Historical information may be embellished for dramatic effect and to engage the sympathy of the reader. 9 Dannhauser, Werner. “Poetry v. Philosophy.” PS: Political Science and Politics. Vol. 28, No. 2 (June 1995), pp. 190-192, at 190. 10 Dannhauser, p. 191. Page | 8

Authors: Fliter, John.
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Dannhauser claims that literature can also provide descriptive information that political
scientists desire.
We can learn something about slavery from reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin or
about labor conditions in turn of the century slaughterhouses by reading The Jungle. A literary
text need not be a classic to provide us with information. Lesser books or short stories might
even be better in this regard because they often respond to specific historical events; great books
often transcend the period in which they are authored.
We might learn some history from reading fiction but the goal of most literature is not to
provide factual information. Literature can teach us something not conveyed by social science.
Social science teaches facts but facts don’t speak for themselves – they are often in need of
imaginative interpretation and evaluation. Sure, we can read about the causes and consequences
of the Dust Bowl and the westward migration of sharecropping families in a textbook or research
article. But we can experience that historical event more imaginatively by reading John
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Literature often goes beyond the level of providing
information. First, it can help us harness, channel, and even change the political passions and
values that we bring to the political arena. As Dannhauser noted, literature “teaches us about
injustice mostly be creating in us a loathing of patent injustice.”
Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s short
story “The Lynching of Jube Benson” teaches us about the evils of mob violence and lynchings
and Tom Robinson’s fate in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird instills in us a loathing of
racism in criminal justice. We need to be careful, however, about the historical value of
literature. There is a reason why it is called fiction. Historical information may be embellished
for dramatic effect and to engage the sympathy of the reader.
9
Dannhauser, Werner. “Poetry v. Philosophy.” PS: Political Science and Politics. Vol. 28, No. 2 (June 1995), pp.
190-192, at 190.
10
Dannhauser, p. 191.
Page | 8


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