On Writing the History of the American Bible Society: Update 119

Bible Cause CoverThe Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society is done.  Oxford University Press tells me that it will ship from the warehouse in the first week of March.

I have been pleased that several scholars have taken notice of the book’s release.  If all goes well, there will be a forum on the book at Religion in American History and HistPhil.  In November I will be making my first trip to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio for a roundtable on the book sponsored by The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts.

This is all very exciting, but it is also a bit scary.  How will the book be received?  Will it be “popular” enough for general audiences?  Will scholars dismiss my narrative approach?  Though this will be the fifth book that has appeared with my name on the cover. The anxiety does not go away.

With this in mind, I really resonate with Joseph Adelman’s recent piece, “Making the Academic-Public Audience Transition.”

Adelman just completed an academic monograph based on his dissertation and is now writing a trade history of the U.S. Post Office.  He writes:

Unlike the first book, Project #2 has a tight deadline in book terms. That means I’m trying to write a book more quickly and without the expanses of time one has during dissertation research. Second, it’s aimed at a general audience, which requires a different writing voice, a different way of thinking about notes and citations, and so on. I had thought that wouldn’t be as much of an issue because I have some experience with public writing, but the scale of the project has made that a bigger challenge. Third, the project has a much longer time span—I’m writing a general history of the Post Office in America from its beginnings in the seventeenth century up to whatever’s going on in Congress when I finish the final draft of the epilogue. That means a new set of sources, including some with which I am less than comfortable. Who knew that reading typewritten primary sources could be so discomfiting?

The largest challenge by far, however, has been trying to write a synthetic work. Unlike the first project, which involved years of archival research, my post office project needs to be completed relatively quickly and stay at a relatively broad level. I don’t have time to spend five years reading pamphlets on postage reform or studying newspaper accounts of the postal workers’ strikes in Chicago or New York in the 1960s and 1970s. I need to rely on other scholarship. That goes against my instincts as a historian, which tell me to go to the archives, to pull sources, to read deeply, to wrap my arms fully around a topic before I commit my thoughts to writing.

I’m not completely abandoning archival work, both because it’s in my blood and because the book needs some archival sources to be credible. But I am working on crafting a narrative that relies on other historians for the background and bringing my voice to the fore for the narrative. It’s something I do every week in the classroom when I write lectures or lead discussions. Putting it into a book manuscript has been more difficult.

I had these identical struggles when writing The Bible Cause.  I have written for general audiences before, but Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? was more didactic and argument-driven than The Bible Cause.  The task of writing the history of a 200-year old organization was not easy.  I had to produce a narrative that was about a mile wide and an inch deep.

In the end I had to abandon historiographical debates and focus on telling a story about the American Bible Society and how it intersected with the history of the United States. Whenever I found myself writing about how historians approach this or that subject, I replaced those paragraphs with an interesting story I had uncovered in the archives.

Adelman is right.  There really is a difference between writing academic history and synthetic history of general readers.  The training in academic writing that many of us received in graduate school is very hard to shake.