HL90 EJ: Espionage: A Cultural History

We’ve got more HL90s to shop! No secrets here, but Duncan White told us more about his new class on espionage!

What inspired you to teach this class?

When I was growing up in Brussels the parents of one of my classmates were revealed to have been spies for East Germany. It was strange to look back on seeing them at school pickup or cheering on the sidelines at sports events and to think of them living this double life. I have been interested in espionage ever since but it was not until I started writing a book about Cold War writers a few years ago that I started to really think about how pervasive spy stories are in our culture, and just how entangled those stories are with real life espionage.

What is a text you’re excited to share with students?

I’m particularly excited to introduce students to the work of John le Carré, if they have not read him before. He recently passed away and I think he is one of the great novelists of the last 50 years. There are few more assiduous chroniclers of the cynicism of the Cold War, and of Britain in sharp imperial decline for that matter.

What does your class help us understand about the present?


Espionage is everywhere. Over the last few years I have been addicted to tv spy dramas: The Americans, The Night Manager and especially the brilliant French show The Bureau. At the same time the news was full of real spying drama, from the Steele dossier to the attempted assassination of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the sleepy English town of Salisbury. As I was finalizing the course the story broke of a massive cyberattack on the US, the full scale of which has not yet been revealed. All of which raises many questions: what is the relationship between real life espionage and the spy stories we consume for pleasure? Why are we so fascinated by the idea of a secret world? Are spy stories just escapist entertainment? Or do they tell us something more interesting about the societies which produced them?

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

While working at MI6, Graham Greene, whose novel The Quiet American we will read for the course, has as his boss Kim Philby, who was later revealed to be a Soviet spy. The story of Philby’s betrayal then became the basis for Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, another novel we will read as part of the course.

Are you doing any cool projects or assignments?

For the final assignment students will be able to write about their own favorite spy novel or movie. We will be thinking about how these spy stories relate to the ones in class and to the specific historical contexts in which they were created and consumed.

How should students contact you to find out more?

If you are interested please check out the Canvas site here, or drop me an email.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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