- Historic Sites
History And How To Write It
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
Too often the savor of drama, the-sense of reliving the past, the communicable thrill ol a story to tell, is buried under the accretion of data. Yet history is inevitably dramatic. The very word comes from the same root as “story”; narration is of the essence. A sense of comedy has its place at the historian’s elbow no less than tragedy. The re-creation of a dominant personality, or daily life of an era, or the power generated by its ideas, calls lor exact knowledge fired by historical imagination. To say also that the chronicle of great events calls for a touch of poetry is not to call do\vn upon us showers of cadencée! prose and purple passages, beloved of the swashbucklers and patrioteers. It means that powers of symmetry, proportion, aesthetic design, controlled emotion, even a knack of playfulness, and at high moments a certain unforced eloquence can be summoned into the service of truth.
The artist’s structural gift—not merely the lumping together of details to be hurled at the reader like a soggy snowball—yields writing that can be read with pleasure. The structure ought to be clean and firm, yet not obtruding the bones of its skeleton. Topic sentences should marshal the squadrons of argument along without seeming to be drillmasters. Passages spongy xvith the deadwood of jargon or encrusted with barnacles of cliché, or ranging from the highbrow-recondite to the insultingly obvious, quotations herded in such droves as to suggest that the writer is too timid to speak for himself—these vices have no place on the pages of good history.
The best writing has been defined as the richest thoughts put into the simplest language. As applied to history, such discourse should resemble the easy, informal, but never careless talk of a well-educated man speaking to friends. To bore, to shout, to preach, to patronize, to grow flabbily garrulous, are all bad manners in society, that is, among intelligent readers who happen to be nonspecialists. A classroom full of students cannot choose but hear, but professors should never forget that the common reader finds it all too easy to shut his book or chuck the magazine into the wastebasket. The pretentious, the sentimental, and the flippant are prone to invite such treatment.
A good writer varies his pace to suit the mood and his reader’s comfort. The crisp, clear statement is his staple. The staccato sentence belongs to the pulse of modern living, to journalism as well as the age of planes and high explosives, but it can be exaggerated just as surely as Clarendon and Hume and Montesquieu overworked the compound-complex sentence, geared to the era of Augustan Latinity, of oxcarts and sailing ships. Nevertheless, the best English and French historians of modern times give us models in writing that many an American might well imitate. These scholars overseas skillfully conceal the grubbing that laid their foundations, the scaffolding that made possible the walls—just as the bright Oxford undergraduate of my day “swotted” furiously over his books during the long vacation with no observers at hand, and returned in termtime to the unhurried career of a gentleman and sportsman. The one thing that a writer need not communicate is all the pain and toil that went into his finished product.
Nothing said here is meant to give aid and comfort to the elegant triiler with the Horace Walpole touch in historiography. His species has never rooted deeply in American soil. As a people we have always put such stress upon factual content, specialization, and accomplishment, as to turn the old Greek maxim “Know thyself” into the American vulgate as “Know thy stuff.” Dilettantism has never been our besetting sin and needs no encouragement now.
But the historian who joins ripe learning to skill and charm in the telling commands the ear not only of the American public but also of the world—whose hunger for clarification among the welter of ideas in which we live made Spengler and H. G. Wells such phenomenal successes after the First World War, and Arnold Toynbee after the Second.
The historian who can write has a sobering responsibility. He is not only promised a wide and interested audience reading over his shoulder, but also assured that posterity will borrow many of its ideas from him, whether true or false. The reputation of Tiberius has been blackened for all time by the brilliant calumnies of Tacitus. Cromwell will always be a hero in shining armor to the devotees of Carlyle, and Warren Hastings a double-dyed villain to the thousands who still cherish their Macaulay. Two such diverse Presidents of the United States as Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt have been deeply concerned about the verdict of posterity—as evidenced, among other signs, by great libraries of their personal papers which they endowed supposedly to the end of time.
A readable historian of his own times will be accepted as the foremost witness par excellence, generation after generation. But by way of compensation, the historian who arrives on the scene long afterwards enjoys advantages too. Though a million details, important and unimportant, will be lost for lack of recording or proper preservation, the disclosure of diaries and secret archives, the fitting together of broken pieces from the mosaic, the settling of controversial dust and cooling of old feuds, and the broad perspective down the avenues of time, all make it possible for him to know an era in its grand design better than most men who lived through it.
To remind ourselves again of Croce’s saying that all living history is contemporaneous, the recorders of that history—the writers who make it real for the largest number of people—are those who lend it the gift of immortality and the power to affect thoughts, emotions, and deeds centuries after the event.