Pultizer Prize-Winning Historian T.J. Stiles Talks Writing

Stiles

Stiles, who has won Pulitzers for his biographies of Cornelius Vanderbilt and George Custer, talks with Rachel Toor about writing.  Here is a taste of their conversation at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Can you talk about writing history as an independent scholar?

Stiles: Academic books earn not royalties but respect from one’s peers, leading to career advancement. That incentivizes the kind of work that wouldn’t be supported by the commercial book market — and a kind of writing that is aimed at colleagues.

Nonacademic readers should appreciate that, and academics should also understand why their professional, academic work — excellent though it may be — often is not absorbed by the world outside the university. You have to write for the audience you’re trying to reach. Many academic historians would like to find a larger readership, and I think there should be more training in narrative writing in graduate programs.

Working outside the academy, I can write narrative and strive for a literary style, unhampered by the demands of academic discourse. And I can pursue subjects that aren’t of current interest to the profession. (When I was working on Jesse James and Custer, I met a lot of skepticism from academic historians.) The commercial market can limit your topics; but if you can convince a publisher there’s an audience, you can write about whatever interests you.

Why narrative history?

Stiles: Narrative begins with the intent to make the reader want to keep reading. That requires plot. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge defines plot as raising questions in the mind of the reader and delaying the answers.

Academic writing usually lays out the questions and the answers at the outset, then proceeds to demonstrate. Again, that’s fine for its purpose. But it strands a reader alone, without the happy company of mystery and suspense, the crew who sail every plot forward.

Narrative generally centers on characters. Scholarship is concerned with the conditions of humans; literature is concerned with the human condition. Serious nonfiction narrative can be concerned with both, but it’s hard to pull off without individuals who have intentions, carry out actions, and face consequences.

There are other aspects of writing narrative, and of incorporating argument and interpretation, but we always begin with plot and character.

As to why, it’s that narrative is inherently part of the historical enterprise, thanks to the element of time. It’s one reason why many academic historians turn out to be very good writers. By centering on human beings, narrative adds a quality of understanding — a glimpse of the human condition, that central concern of literature. And history has always been considered a branch of literature. There’s no Pulitzer Prize for sociology, after all.

Read the entire interview here.

T.J. Stiles: “America is losing its memory”

Archives

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian T.J. Stiles has a great piece at The Washington Post on reduced funding for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  This is a must read.

A taste:

Every American can go to the National Archives and get direct access to our past and present. And everyone suffers from the failure to pay what it costs to maintain it. In fiscal 2010, Congress granted NARA $475 million , for example. The next year, it cut the appropriation to $420 million. The appropriation for 2018 was $403.2 million. For 2020, the Trump administration is asking for $358 million. Such repeated, harsh reductions are even worse when adjusted for inflation.

Even as appropriations decline, the workload increases. Already NARA facilities are near full capacity for record storage, holding some 4.5 million cubic feet. Yet more files arrive annually, with as much as 2.5 million cubic feet of “permanently valuable, historical records” expected over the next 14 years.

Selecting and preserving these records demand countless hours of expert labor. Some records need special care; all must be identified and catalogued; security and privacy concerns require diligent attention. On top of that, NARA has been asked to digitize those existing paper records. In 2018, it lagged nearly 12 million pages behind its goal of making 65 million available online — in itself a small fraction of its total holdings.

The fiscal constriction shows at the scores of facilities where the public accesses federal records. NARA maintains more than a dozen presidential libraries, 13 federal records centers, 11 regional facilities and two personnel records centers, not to mention two central locations in College Park and Washington. Recent years have seen visitor hours restricted, new fees levied and a shrinking workforce.

That staff consists of dedicated professionals. I’ve worked with many of them personally, from rank-and-file archivists to the agency’s nonpartisan leadership, and I have great confidence in them. (I spoke to no one at NARA about this essay.) But only so much can be accomplished with a shrinking budget. In 2017, an employee survey found 73 percent agreed that “my agency is successful at accomplishing its mission.” In 2018, that figure declined to 66 percent, an alarming level for such a critical body.

We owe it to ourselves to substantially increase funding for the keepers of our national memory. No financial interest or large popular pressure group lobbies on NARA’s behalf. Its constituency is all of us — and every American to come. If we lose touch with who we have been, what we have endured and how we have argued, the United States will stand for nothing at all.

Read the entire piece here.

More on the Museum of the History of American History

StilesA couple of weeks ago we published a post on Pulitzer Prize-winner T.J. Stiles‘s idea to have a museum devoted to American historiography.  We had fun with this idea on Twitter, as our post indicates.

Stiles has now floated this idea again in a recent article at History News Network titled “We Need a Museum that Tells Us How We Came to Believe What We Believe.”  Here is a taste:

It is time we built a Museum of the History of American History.

If Donald Trump’s comments on the Charlottesville march and murder did nothing else, they awoke much of America to the ongoing battle over the public memory of the Civil War. The resulting outrage shows that memory matters. Memory makes meaning. Memory makes politics.

And politics makes memory. So does the formal study and writing of history, of course, but the relationship between the discipline of history and memory—or broadly shared cultural assumptions—is complicated. Conventional wisdom shapes historians, who often reinforce it with their work; on the other hand, many challenge it by marshaling evidence and arguments that, on occasion, change the public mind and seep back into politics. I don’t mean, then, that we need a historiography museum, but one that traces the intertwining of the popular imagination and the professional study of history. It would go beyond the question, “What happened?” to ask “How did we come to believe that this is what happened?” The answer to the latter can be just as important as to the first.

Read the rest here.

 

“Andrew Jackson, Fred Douglass, and Honest Abe walk into a bar …”

Trump in Ames

T.J. Stiles won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.” In an op-ed published today at the Los Angeles Times he has a few things to say about Donald Trump’s abuse of American history.

Here is a taste:

Whenever President Trump talks about American history, it sounds like he’s telling a joke. “Andrew Jackson, Fred Douglass, and Honest Abe walk into a bar …” The punch line is he’s not joking.

Does it matter? Granted, he may not realize that Frederick Douglass is retired and then some; he seems to have discovered only in 2016 that Lincoln belonged to the party of Lincoln; and he attributes his own ignorance to everyone else (“People don’t ask the question, why was there the Civil War?“). Still, plenty of other issues demand our attention. Newt Gingrich dismisses the criticism, telling the New York Times, “There’s a certain amount of hunting for ‘what is it that Trump has done that’s dumb?'” Fair enough. Barack Obama and George W. Bush both mangled the past on occasion. “Trump is learning history as he governs,” Gingrich added — on the job, like a kid on the soft-serve machine at a Dairy Queen.

One obvious problem with Gingrich’s defense is that a president does not perform merely mechanical tasks. We entrust that person with the making of history — a job that requires a grasp of both historical content and the historical method. The president and historian alike live in a world of everything. Nothing lies beyond consideration. Every event, every matter of concern, swirls and bobs in a sea of trends, traditions, accidents, choices, costs, attitudes and beliefs. The ability to understand connections, interactions and unintended consequences is crucial.

Read the rest here.