Randall J. Stephens
Graduate students know the drill well. Bulking up on historiography for qualification exams is a time-honored tradition. Who argued what, when, where, and why? What are the contours of the field or subfield? What did the transition from the orthodox position to the revisionist and then post-revisionist schools look like? Graduate students pore over books in dusty libraries and stare, red-eyed, at digitized articles.
Those who train historians pay a great deal of attention to arguments and counterarguments, theses and antitheses. In graduate and undergraduate research seminars professors also stress the importance of analyzing evidence, applying theoretical models, and making a plausible case. But is the same amount of energy and study devoted to the writing of history? “Without the imaginative insight which goes with creative literature,” wrote English historian C.V. Wedgwood, “history cannot be intelligibly written.”
In the lead piece of a roundtable on "How to Teach the Writing of History" (Historically Speaking [January 2009]), Stephen Pyne discusses the importance of train historians how to write and offers useful examples of pedagogy. His remarks are followed by reflections from Michael Kammen, Jill Lepore, and John Demos. I post excerpts from each here.
[The full forum will be available at Project Muse. Subscribe to HS to read more.]
HOW TO TEACH THE WRITING OF HISTORY: A ROUNDTABLE, Historically Speaking (January 2009)
Riding the Melt*
Stephen J. Pyne
History is a book culture. We read books, we write books, we promote and award tenure on the basis of books, and at national meetings we gather around book exhibits. We’re a book-based discipline. But we don’t teach how to write them. It’s an odd omission. We accept statistics, geographic information systems, languages, oral history techniques, paleography, and other instruments as legitimate methodologies; we don’t accept serious writing. Good writing seems to mean using the active voice, not confusing “it’s” with “its,” and where possible, shunning split infinitives. We obsess over historiography, note the distorting power of literary tropes, and list the fallacies of historical arguments, but don’t understand the medium that carries our message. Literary craft remains a black box, like the software running our laptops. Yet we cannot avoid words, and careers rise and fall on the basis of what we publish; we just don’t explain how to transmute research into texts. The kind of writing we do doesn’t even have a name. So while many practitioners seem keen to unpack texts, few seem eager to teach how to pack them in the first place.
Why? It may be that the simple production of data has become a sufficient justification for scholarship. . . .
A few years ago, on a stint as a visiting professor, I was asked to lead a morning seminar on writing. That sparked my amorphous concerns into a desire to offer a graduate course that would address the theory and practice of making texts do what their writers wished. It would be English for historians, as we might offer statistics for ecologists or physics for geologists. It’s been the best teaching experience in my career. . . .
* An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Chronicle Review, July 12, 2009.
Historians on Writing
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.” . . . .
. . . 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. . . .
How to Write a Paper for This Class
I have got a handout I’ve been using for a while now. It’s your basic, How to Write a Paper for This Class. Everyone’s got one of these handouts. Pyne’s new book amounts to a handout that might be called How to Write a Book for This Profession. I’m glad he’s written it and can’t think of much he’s said, in this excerpt, that I’d disagree with, except that I happen to think that learning how to write essays is just as important as, and maybe more useful than, learning how to write books. I am not convinced that books ought to be the measure of merit in our profession. Nor am I convinced that all historians ought to write books— and, in any case, not all do. Everyone has got to know how to write an essay, though. That quibble aside, I certainly don’t dispute Pyne’s premise: historians generally don’t care much about writing, and they should, although a surprising number believe, pretty fiercely, that they shouldn’t. . . .
Response to Stephen Pyne
My first reaction on reading Stephen Pyne’s essay was “hooray!” And so was
my second. And my third. Without much recognizing it, historians have—for several generations now—downgraded the writing part of their task. Time was when writers of history held a solid stake within the larger domain of serious literature: Gibbon, Macaulay, Parkman, Prescott are the first, most obvious, names to come to mind. No doubt the change, the downgrading, has had much to do with professionalization; as the discipline became, in fact, a discipline, priorities shifted. Perhaps there was something of a seesaw effect: when concern with research and interpretive technique went up, prose composition went correspondingly down. What “good writing” has come to mean, in the minds of most historians, is clear and effective communication: getting your point across.
It ought to mean so much more. Pyne is absolutely right to spotlight the importance of evocation alongside exposition, and voice as much as thesis. . . .
I believe, however, that Pyne is mistaken in one respect: his insistence that history be sharply distinguished from fiction. No boundary line divides the two; at most there is a wide and nebulous borderland. Open any work of history, even the most conventional sort, and you will find statements that involve a degree of “making it up.” We are always filling little holes in our evidence with bits of inference or outright invention—whether we acknowledge this or not. (And better, for sure, if we do.) . . . .
P.S.: Robert Townsend has alerted me to an interesting piece he wrote at the AHA blog back in 2008: "From the Archives: Why Can’t Historians Write?" He discusses the perennial conversation about bad writing within the profession. A 1926 AHA report, linked to the post, reveals similar concerns from yesteryear. "Instead of the current bugaboo of postmodernism," writes Townsend, "the authors blame the scientific pretensions of their day for elevating 'Facts' over a more 'humanized' form of writing. And where errant politics is blamed, they cite the excesses of commercialism and the nationalistic sentiments marked by First World War."