Who is Best to Write History in the Marketplace?

Who is Best to Write History in the Marketplace

Original Article: Who is Best to Write History in the Marketplace?

It is an important experience to hear what people actually say about history and historians, instead of what they want you to hear. It is not that difficult to prod some honest answers if you know where to look.  And so it came to pass that I read this comment in the Association of Personal Historians’ social networking site: “Historians tend to write in a style that reflects the archives or lecture hall–somewhat turgid and dry.”

We professional historians understand the comment in terms of a certain pattern of academic courses in the universities, but how true is it?   “Turgid and dry” is not what I really find. There is plenty of human drama without losing details of the research among the American, Australian, and British historians I happen to read. For me, historians like Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark, Stephen Ambrose and Howard Zinn, evoke in me a passion for people and events of the past. The popular criticisms of discipline-trained historians not being able to write for a popular audience are getting now too much out-of-date. People have been saying this for several decades and I wonder what effort they are making in seeking good history books out.

There is also another point here. The relationship between a writer and their audience goes both ways, and the general readership of history is more mixed than critics allow. We can see a growing population in both western and non-western countries that form a readership who are higher education qualified, and who demand higher level of critical evaluation in popular works. I see this clearly in the phenomenal explosion of popular texts in philosophy in the last ten years. There is a market for history which is more than a description of mere events nostalgically recalled. Some human beings, and it is usually those who still buy or borrow books, can say they lived a reflective life and have been able to do that with deep understanding that comes from disciplined learning (not because I heard it in the media or online). In such cases, there is a demand for popular history that really labours with ideas, research, and the art of history writing.

It was then with great interest I read David Greenberg’s 2005 online essays under a combined title of That Barnes & Noble Dream.  Written some years ago in the American context, it has some observations that still evoke familiarity for us today:

“I’ve seen students entering graduate school aspiring to write like Arthur Schlesinger, only to be shunted into producing pinched, monographic studies. I’ve seen conferences full of brilliant minds unable to find an interesting presentation to attend that isn’t literally read off the page in a soporific drone. We write too much for each other—and, as we do, a public hungry for good history walks into Barnes & Noble and gets handed vapid mythmaking that uninformed critics ratify as ‘magisterial’ or ‘definitive.’

Thankfully, historians now seem to be recognizing all this as a problem.”

The question is how much has the problem been addressed in the last eight years, and can we see an Australian response. I would welcome observations. What is, however, informative from Greenberg is the story of the problem, as it was understood in the American public imagination.  Allen Nevins had an M.A. in English from University of Illinois in 1913. He worked as a journalist in New York City and became a member of history faculty at Columbia University in 1929. His rise from there was extraordinary. He became Dewitt Clinton Professor of History in 1939, and was appointed Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University from 1940 to 1941 and again from 1964 to 1965.  His reputation was built as a populariser of history. According to Greenberg, “…Nevins was so fed up with his colleagues’ disregard for the public that he went on to found American Heritage magazine and the Society for American History to promote accessible history.”

On the other side of the field, Greenberg refers to the 1988 work of Peter Novick, who argues that since the 1950s amateur historians, such as Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland and Barbara Tuchman, were regarded as by “professional historians … as the equivalent of chiropractors and neuropaths.”  To add to the confusion there were also American public intellectual history offering up histories, during these decades. These were intellectuals such as Daniel Boorstin, Oscar Handlin, Richard Hofstadter, and Comer Vann Woodward. Most of these public intellectuals wrote with the authority of the academy, holding prestigious positions. Woodward was Sterling Professor of History at Yale from 1961 to 1977.  Daniel Boorstin was the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge in 1964.

Criticisms of the history discipline entering the popular domain, from Greenberg’s assessment, is overlayed by a number of dichtomies:

  • Academic vs. popular history: the dichtomy isn’t useful, notes Greenberg, because non-disciplinary historians can so easily become adjunct professor of history. Even when academic historians, such as Stephen Ambrose and Howard Zinn, make popular contributions it can be savagely attacked by their colleagues as  “bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions.”
  •  Monographs vs. synthesis: By monographic works, Greenberg is referring to microhistory. He notes that a narrow focus does not necessarily sacrifice relevance. Some topics may require rich detail on short range of time and place, such as Margaret MacMillan’s blow-by-blow account of the Versailles conference, in her popular book, Paris 1919.
  •  “Conservative” political history vs. ” radical” social history: it is easy for history tomes written for a popular audience to be polemic. Nothing new here. There are clear examples in Australian history. Greenberg’s point is that politics isn’t the real problem, but that sentimentality shadows over critical reflection is a problem for both sides of the spectrum.
  •  Narrative vs. analysis: This should be the two features that professional historians work at developing to their best end. Sacrificing one for the other is not an option. I don’t there would be any disagreement on this point, but it does take practice and hard work.
  •  Jargon vs. Clear Writing:  A common complaint about academic history. In a 1986 example for intellectual history we find such obfuse terms as ‘distransitivity,’ ‘actantial/actant,’ ‘psychologeme,’  ‘chrononym,’ ‘dromomatics,’ and ‘intradiegetic.’ As Greenberg points out, there are times when specialist terms are needed and can be very helpful for anaylsis, but this should not impede lucid writing and clear prose.

Greenberg has a few ideas about how historians can reach a wider audience without sacrificing rigour. First, he comes up with the Goldilocks approach to historiography:

“If a book is conceived with only historiography in mind—with academic disciplinary debates and research agendas dictating the focus and the form—it’s unlikely to succeed in the public realm. If it’s conceived without historiography in mind, it’s unlikely to succeed as scholarship.”

The problem is that academic historians select their areas of research not by looking at history but by surveying the historiography. What results is highly refined or technical points of a subject. Greenberg explains the history of the problem here:

“This quasi-scientific approach grew out of the rise of social science, professionalism, and the research university in the late 19th century. As academic historians became a self-conscious guild, they endorsed the premise that as trained experts, operating dispassionately, they could build a base of knowledge to which subsequent generations would incrementally add. While few of us today consider history a “science,” most share the belief—or hope—that the steady accretion of knowledge will over time broaden our understanding of the past. Assumptions like these lead scholars to fashion small bricks to be stacked upon the historical edifice.”

However, Greenberg is not saying that historiography is the problem. Greenberg’s argument is that “Good history…is written in awareness of the historiography but addressed to it only indirectly.” In writing history, immersion in historiography distanced scholars from the public, but where there is an ignorance of historiography, in the writing, the intellectual contributions to our understanding of an issue will be very poor and unsatisfying. The answer is finding clear ways to communicate historical perspectives to the public, and also to find a compromise where some of the historiography can be relegated to copious endnotes, leaving the narrative uncluttered and welcoming to readers of all kinds. In time readers can learn what endnotes can offer.

Neville Buch, MPHA (Qld)

Reproduced from PHA (Qld) e-bulletin 22 July 2013, with kind permission of the PHA (Qld) e-bulletin editor.

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Neville Buch

Professional Historian at Qld Historians
Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He is a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch is the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and is a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.

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Neville Buch
Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He is a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch is the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and is a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.
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