Gordon Wood on Academics and Narrative History

This week’s Washington Post series on “The Writer’s Life” features Gordon Wood. There is a podcast of Wood talking about Empire of Liberty, his new book in the Oxford History of the United States series, as well as his thoughts on the discipline and practice of history.

The series also includes a short piece by Wood on the relationship between academic monographs and narrative history. Wood defends the work of academic historians and their monographs, although he admits that few people other than fellow academics will read them. Rather than bashing the academic monograph, as many non-academic history writers are prone to do, he asserts the importance of these studies for revealing a deeper and more solid understanding of the past.

Ultimately, Wood calls some historians to bridge the gap between the discipline and popular audiences. He calls for a kind of history that goes beyond the journalistic writing of popular historians and engages more fully with the best of historical scholarship.

I really like this idea and tried to incorporate it in The Way of Improvement Leads Home (although I am probably still too analytical in my style for Wood’s taste). It does seem possible that historians can write narrative history that will appeal to the informed history buff, with footnotes that reveal their debt to the most recent and important scholarship in the particular field.

In the end, there will always be historians who will gravitate toward the specialized monograph that is written in an analytical style to his or her fellow historians. There will also always be historians who try to write compelling narratives for general readers. We need both.

Popular Historians and "Historian’s Historians"

I was recently reading a short biography of Princeton Civil War historian James McPherson in the Summer 2009 newsletter of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. (It was recently announced that McPherson has won the NJCH lifetime achievement award. I would also be remiss if I did not add that The Way of Improvement Leads Home was chosen as an NJCH “Honor Book” in 2009.).

Here is a passage from the NJCH blurb on McPherson:

“A colleague at a California university recently remarked to me that I would be forced to choose between becoming a ‘popular historian’ or a ‘historian’s historian.’ He strongly hinted that I was in danger of becoming the former,” wrote James M. McPherson in 1995. “Why couldn’t I be both?” McPherson responded. “Surely it is possible to say something of value to fellow professionals while at the same time engaging a wider audience.”

“Forced to choose?” “Danger?”

Frankly, there are far too many so-called “historian’s historians” out there who think this way. Kudos to James McPherson for a career well spent in the service of both academia and the general public.