Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gordon Wood on Writing History

Eminent historian Gordon S. Wood has an essay in yesterday's Washington Post that every practicing historian (or would-be practicing historian) ought to read. He makes the very good point that the oft-heard argument that academic historians have "forgotten how to tell a story" (and thus, write books that very few people actually sit down and read) is not quite accurate: "Academic historians have not forgotten how to tell a story. Instead, most of them have purposefully chosen not to tell stories; that is, they have chosen not to write narrative history."

Instead, he notes, academic historians tend to write analytic history, "specialized and often narrowly focused monographs" which "seek to solve problems in the past that the works of previous historians have exposed; or to resolve discrepancies between different historical accounts; or to fill in gaps that the existing historical literature has missed or ignored." Wood continues: "Their studies, however narrow they may seem, are not insignificant. It is through their specialized studies that they contribute to the collective effort of the profession to expand our knowledge of the past." He points out the roots of this type of history writing ("the 19th-century noble dream that history might become an objective science"), and maintains (correctly) that as a group these histories have "advanced the discipline in extraordinary ways over the past century."

But, he goes on, this type of writing comes at the price of a limited readership: "Like papers in the other sciences, monographic history is written largely for people within the discipline. Since the monographs build upon one another, the writers of these monographic studies usually presume that readers will have read the earlier books on the same subject; that is, that they will possess some prior specialized knowledge that will enable them to participate in the conversations and debates that historians have among themselves. This is why most historical monographs are often difficult for general readers to read; new or innocent readers often have to educate themselves in the historiography of the subject before they can begin to make sense of many of these books."

Wood concludes "So advising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science." Because of the massive accretion of academic monographs, "most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus, the academics have generally left narrative history writing to the non-academic historians, who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive scholarship that exists. If academic historians want popular narrative history that is solidly based on the monographic literature, then they will have to write it themselves."

Wood's concerns aren't new: much of the background in this piece will be familiar to readers of his excellent reviews, which were collected in a 2008 volume, The Purpose of the Past (my review here). And writing as an academic historian who can and does engage in the synthesis of scholarly literature in a way that is at once readable and rigorous, as in his new book, Empire of Liberty (my review here), Wood understands as well as anyone that it can be done. But beyond that, scholarly monographs can be readable and interesting too, and that should be something all scholars strive for.