"To Produce A Mighty Book, You Must Choose a Mighty Theme"

This is some good writing advice from Herman Melville.  I ran across this quote in James Green’s History News Network article on Adam Hochschild and the art of writing historical narrative.  In a recent conference on “The Power of Narrative” at Boston University, Hochschild talked about how to “sound original” when “there are 15,000 books on your subject.”  Here is a taste:

Why, he asked, should an academic historian only choose a topic so specialized or so esoteric that no one has examined it before? Why not follow the advice of Melville who wrote: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme”? Of course, the answer is that scholars feel the need to conduct original research and make a novel “argument.” But this form of scholarship may no longer be the only way to publish, even in prestigious university presses. As an editor for one of these publishers told me recently: “We can’t publish a lot of Ph.D. theses produced by students in the best history departments because the topics are too obscure and the writing is too dense. We are looking for manuscripts of interest to the general reader.” 

Second, Hochschild personalizes his narratives. For the new book on the American volunteers in Spain he has spent months finding characters whose experiences, memories, and letters can provide the keys to his kind of storytelling. Some of these men and women interacted with one another during the Civil War in the sort of surprising ways we saw the characters mesh and clash in his profound story of Great Britain’s agony during the Great War. Though none of them were as prominent as writers like Hemingway, some of these new characters are valuable because they open aspects of life in Republican Spain often ignored by journalists at the time and by latter day historians: notably the remarkable social reconstruction of Catalonia by the Anarchists.
Over breakfast, I asked Adam if a character-driven approach to history has been the key element in his narratives, and he said, yes, “so far,” but that this was by no means the only effective method of storytelling.
Third, Hochschild believes in the importance of “scene setting,” speaking of this as though he was a set designer in the theater. In one session, the author described how he used steam boat schedules to recreate a scene for King Leopold’s Ghost when Joseph Conrad’s steamer passed by the boat on Congo River carrying George Washington Williams, the black American journalist who wrote the first major exposé of the atrocities in King Leopold’s Congo. In another session Adam offered a sneak preview of the opening to his forthcoming book, the recreation of moment which sets up the big question he will confront: why did a bunch of Americans risk their lives by going to fight in Spain? Of course, none of this staging can be imagined even though in Hochschild’s hands scenes do read as though written for a novel.