Over at Dissent, Francesca Mari (associate editor of Texas Monthly) reviews two collections of essays by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death and The Story of America: Essays on Origins. (The essays in these volumes originally appeared in The New Yorker). Mari uses the review to reflect on the genre of microhistory, a style of history writing that Lepore has raised to an art form.
Here is a taste:
In The Story of America’s introduction, Lepore says that she joined The New Yorker because she “wanted to learn how to tell stories better,” which is sort of like saying one wanted to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro to learn how to walk. But, indeed, the success of a microhistory is very much about storytelling, and rests on strengths not always prioritized in academia—a sensitivity to character and idiosyncratic detail, an ability to amplify the plot turns in a life or an idea while letting go of those that are unimportant. To wit, Lepore writes a whole essay about Samuel Eliot Morison, “the last Harvard historian to ride a horse to work,” who, “once interrupted at his desk by the incessant barking of a neighbor’s dog, went outside and shot it.” While some academics might think such a detail a barking distraction from their larger argument, Lepore recognizes that it is often the detail that pegs a person’s character but also that triggers an epiphany.
Harvard history professor Jill Lepore offers some “fishy” advice on how to write a history paper. Read her instructions (for the fish stuff) or read my synopsis below:
1. Ask a good question. (i.e. “What does the Revolution look like from a losers’ point of view?”)
2. You can change your question based on what you discover in the process of doing your research.
3. Start analyzing your evidence when you have enough of it (in the primary and secondary source variety) to answer your question.
4. When you come up with a good title, start writing.
5. Make sure to balance argument and story throughout the paper
6. Make an outline
7. Think hard about what will appear on the page and what will appear in a footnote.
8. Your paper is finished when you have stated your case and finished your story.
Over at History News Network, Robin Lindley interviews Jill Lepore about her new book The Story of America. I have not read Lepore’s book, but I have read some of the essays that have been republished in it. I was very struck by a quote Lindley chose from the introduction:
Writing history requires empathy, inquiry, and debate. It requires forswearing condescension, cant, and nostalgia. The past isn’t quaint. Much of it, in fact, is bleak.
Here is a taste of the interview:
A goal of your essays is “to explain how history works.” Can you give a couple of examples of how your essays reveal the historian’s work?
Nearly every essay in the collection originally appeared in The New Yorker. A few began as book reviews. That’s true of the essay about Plymouth and the Pilgrims, which started out as a review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 book, Mayflower but became a reflection on the work of Samuel Eliot Morison, the American historian who edited William Bradford’s journal. “Let the facts speak!” was Morison’s motto. He never met a footnote he didn’t like. Philbrick, like many popular historians who work outside the academy, dispenses with footnotes and is interested, above all, in letting his story speak. The difference between Morison and Philbrick — their methods and arguments and especially their standards of evidence — reveals a great deal, I think, about how historians work.
History, as I write in the book’s introduction, is the art of making an argument by telling a story. A story without an argument fades into antiquarianism; an argument without a story risks pedantry. But, in the end, evidence is everything. One of the many essays in the book that didn’t start out as a book review is the essay about the Constitution. Instead, it’s a history of how the Constitution has been read over the centuries, not by lawyers or jurists or politicians but by everyone else. I wanted to explain the rise of what legal scholars call “popular constitutionalism.” I began with a question: when and why did “Read the Constitution” become a bumper sticker? I went to the archives to find out. Then I wrote an essay in which I tried to make an argument by telling a story about what I’d discovered. That might not be “how historians work,” but it’s how I work.