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Historians on Writing

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 11, Number 1, January 2010
pp. 17-19 | 10.1353/hsp.0.0084

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Historians distinguish themselves in diverse ways, yet relatively few are remembered as gifted prose stylists, and fewer still have left us non-didactic missives with tips about the finer points of writing well. Following his retirement from Cornell in 1941, Carl Becker accepted a spring term appointment as Neilson Research Professor at Smith College. Early in 1942 he delivered a charming address in Northampton titled “The Art of Writing.” Although admired as one of the most enjoyable writers among historians in the United States, Becker’s witty homily for the young women that day concerned good writing in general, and his exemplars ranged widely. He cited Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, because “the author’s intention was to achieve a humorous obscurity by writing nonsense. He had a genius for that sort of thing, so that, as one may say, he achieved obscurity with a clarity rarely if ever equaled before or since.”1

Other notable historians have shared Becker’s belief that writing about the past is a form of art—or ideally, at least, ought to be. Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1912 capped the generations that so admired Francis Parkman and Henry Adams by designating his subject “History as Literature.” All too soon, however, TR’s highly idealized perspective seemed unattainable by the new professionals in academe. Even Becker swiftly became pessimistic about the prospects for historical “literature,” especially as he observed his guild developing in its formative years. He wrote candidly to a friend in 1915:

It would be possible to get perhaps 20 men who could write good history in a straightforward and readable manner; but if they should be expected to raise their work to the level of real literature—to the level of [J. R.] Green or Parkman, for example—I fear it can’t be done. Men of high literary talent unfortunately do not go in for the serious study of history very often; and the study of history, as conducted in our universities, is unfortunately not designed to develop such talent as exists. Besides, history is I should say one of the most difficult subjects in the world to make literature out of; I mean history in the general sense, as distinct from biography or the narrative of some particular episode.

Nevertheless, he went on to add: “Yet it is possible, and in my opinion highly desirable to come as near doing just that thing as possible. With all our busy activity history has less influence on the thought of our time than it had in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and one principal reason is that it isn’t read.”2

A generation later Samuel Eliot Morison, who took Parkman as his model, lamented that American historians “have forgotten that there is an art of writing history,” and titled his homily “History as a Literary Art.” Subsequently Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., George Kennan, and C. Vann Woodward also provided instructive essays explaining how and why historical writing might flow in a creative manner that can engage the general reader.3

In the mid-1980s, when the Library of America produced stout volumes of works by Parkman and Adams, Woodward seized upon those occasions as opportunities to explain why these authors once enjoyed popular appeal and remained eminently worthy of visitation: narrative power, irony, subtlety, and ambiguity in Parkman, wit, irony, humor, and a love of paradox in the case of Adams, whom Woodward called a “master of English prose.”4

J.H. Hexter devoted at least half a dozen droll essays to the challenges of Doing History, and the particular problems faced by academic historians. After describing just how arduous historical research can be, he turned with characteristic whimsy to the equally demanding challenge of first-rate prose.

[Once] the research ends, the working up of the evidence into a finished piece of history writing starts, and the historian at last tastes the pleasure of scholarly creation. Or does he? Well, if he has an aptitude at the management of evidence and a flare for vigorous prose, perhaps he does enjoy himself a good bit. But what...



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