- Historic Sites
History And How To Write It
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
The writing of good history is just that. As a science it can make no compromise with the slipshod and false; as an art it must sei/,e upon the durable and significant, firmly rejecting the rest. The doting antiquary, like the untaught Mohammedan, saves every scrap of paper blown his way by the wind because it might contain the sacred name of Allah. But the scholar of broad vision cannot shirk his job of selection. Horse sense, independence, and strict integrity are vital to the good writing of good history. Neither Ghesterton and Belloc, on the extreme Catholic right, nor Bukharin and Tarle, on the Marxist left, are trustworthy guides through the mazes of the past. If the historian warps his evidence to fit some prejudice or preconceived pattern, he has failed us. The late Charles Beard came more and more to advocate the deliberate cultivation of “assumptions” by the historian, but applying his own counsels of defeat Beard declined steadily from front rank into the role of propagandist and ax-grinder. Trends in whitewashing or debunking come and go, but history written with a steady hand will outlast them all.
This doesn’t mean that a good historian must be drained of individuality—a research automaton for dredging up facts and offering them to the public in a mechanical scoop. Nor does it require him to lack personal stability or a core of conviction about principles, like those whom Shaw has described as having minds so open there is nothing left but a draft.
If the author’s saturation in his subject is so real that he develops affections and dislikes, his writing is sure to be more warm and vigorous than if he strikes the attitude of a biologist dissecting a frog. On a basis of sound inquiry and reasoned belief he should form those value judgments from which no historian worth his salt must flinch. We simply demand that he treat the material fairly, give an accounting for the generali/ations he draws, and, while playing his thesis to win, never stack the cards. He cannot fabricate evidence- whether documents, conversations, or incidents. At this fork he parts company with the romancer. What the storied and spacious past needs is not invention but insight and interpretation.
Yet the field of current literature is thickly populated with burrowing scholars too indifferent to write well and with slick fictioneers too la/y to dig for themselves. Public taste naturally favors the latter, and so the historical romance stays entrenched atop the best-seller list year after year. The quality of such books is as variable as the barometer, usually rising in direct relation to their fidelity to sources. Thus, while Kenneth Roberts and Margaret Mitchell have mixed sound history and original research with their dramatic gifts, Heaven help those whose knowledge of the past depends upon Howard Fast or Taylor CaIdwell.
If the professional historians see the flag of popular following wrenched from their grasp by the romancers, as I have said, they have largely themselves to blame. A great deal of the fault lies with the bloodlcssncss of so much académie writing—the traditions of dull competence that have grown up about the Ph.D. dissertation and the learned monograph. Instead of “wearing all that weight of learning lightly like a flower,” in Tennyson’s phrase, these savants wear it not a little pridefully like a ball and chain. This is not to disparage solid scholarship or belittle necessary toil over government documents, statistics, diaries, and all manner of dusty archives. Parkman and Prescott drudged too, before achieving a distillate of crystal clarity and palatable flavor.
Some years ago, before the illustrious heyday of Winston Churchill, George M. Trevelyan grumbled that history was no longer read widely because it had ceased to be written by “persons moving at large in the world of letters or politics” like his great-uncle Macaulay. It is perhaps too much to require the average historian to sit in Parliament or Congress or Cabinet, to plunge up to the neck in the civic activities of his time, travel all over the globe, steep himself in a dozen languages and cultures, or even write poetry and fiction as aids to his craftsmanship in the manner ol Carl Sandburg. Any of these experiences, however, will enrich him. Think of those lively annalists of early Virginia, for instance, like Robert Beverley, William Byrd, and Thomas Jefferson—planters and men of affairs, business, and politics, who wrote all the better for the versatility of their lives. Or of the later historian-statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt, Albert J. Beveridge, and Woodrow Wilson.
Some of our best professionals have been the least sedentary. A zest for field work adds freshness, originality, and vigor to the sinews of writing—as instanced by Francis Parkman’s journey over the Oregon Trail and sojourn among the Sioux; Douglas S. Freeman’s patient exploration of every crater in the battlefields of northern Virginia; Samuel Fliot Morison’s sailing with the Navy in the Second World War. Before writing Admiral of the Ocean Sea Morison navigated the Atlantic in a sailing boat comparable to the Santa Maria —in fact doing almost everything Columbus did except discover America. The feel of an ax or a ride butt or fishing rod in the hand, a pack at the back, wind upon the face, salt air in the nostrils, are all good disciplines lor the writing of history. An apt historian learns of the past through all his senses. I once met an eccentric spinster archaeologist who claimed that she could date any Roman aqueduct by the flavor on her tongue of its crumbling masonryshe had tasted them all.