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.
Maybe if one of my books sold 350,000 copies I would not need to do this
Last summer a group of K-8 history teachers urged me to write a popular biography of Philip Vickers Fithian. Here is what I wrote back then:
I am always amazed when I talk to people who develop strong emotional connections to the characters in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. I did not expect the book to be a tearjerker. The title is long and technical. It is published by a university press. Most bookstores do not carry it. When my first royalty check arrived, I spent it all on Christmas presents. When the second royalty check arrived, I spent it all on a nice dinner for my family. Today I can still splurge for dinner with the annual check, assuming that the meal is eaten at Arby’s.
But since the book first appeared in 2008, a few dozen people have told me that they cried at the end. This week at the Princeton Seminar, five teachers mentioned that the final chapter brought them to tears.
Philip Vickers Fithian’s story does have an emotional ending, but I am still surprised that a book about the Enlightenment in America resonates with readers in this way.
Last week several K-8 history teachers (and at least one school librarian) attending the Princeton Seminar strongly encouraged me to write a biography of Philip for the young adult nonfiction market. I am taking their advice seriously. I don’t know very much about this market, but I want to learn more. After listening to these teachers, and thinking about this a bit more myself, I think that teenagers might find Philip’s story interesting for what it teaches us about everyday life in colonial America, the early years of the American Revolution, love and courtship, education, self-improvement, and life on the frontier.
Stay tuned. And if you have any advice I would love to hear it.
Laura Kamoie still receives periodic royalty statements for a book she published over a decade ago—an economic history of the early American Tayloe family, based on her PhD dissertation from the College of William and Mary. She knows that, to date, it has sold 773 copies, an ordinary showing for a first book that might be assigned in a university class once in a while. As for the next work she lists under the publications section of her CV? That one has sold over 350,000 copies.
The wildly successful America’s First Daughter (2016) is not an academic history but a work of historical fiction. Using “the exact same research process as I did for my dissertation,” Kamoie, along with co-author Stephanie Dray, wrote a novel from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter Patsy. Headlining the jam-packed AHA18 session “Historians Writing Historical Fiction,” Kamoie talked about the ways she finds writing academic history and writing historical fiction similar, arguing that “both attempt to link known facts and try to shape them into some kind of a narrative. Both make historical contributions, and both are meant to generate curiosity about the past.”
So you don’t set out at the beginning knowing the story you want to tell?
Absolutely not. I think it my obligation to set out with neither thesis nor agenda. Time and again I think of E. B. White’s counsel—“It is best to have strong curiosity, weak affiliations.” The preconceptions, the convictions are what blind you. Similarly, I feel the material should dictate the form of the life. With the Nabokovs, for example, there is throughout the book a sort of fox-trot between past and future. That was not something I could have anticipated. I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would. I’m unapologetic about this. It means the reader and I arrive together at our destination, which strikes me as the point of the exercise.
How does the book evolve?
I begin to write only after I’ve completed the bulk of the research. This is not the most efficient way to proceed, but it’s the only way I seem able to. The themes have emerged by then. Sometimes the shape of the narrative has begun to glint in the distance. Which won’t matter, as it will evolve anyway.
The years in the archives can feel endless, as if you’re on an eternal grocery-shopping expedition and will never actually cook anything. If ever you were actually a writer, you are no more. You’re more like a sponge, with all the personality of one. Finally one day you wake to discover sentences forming in your head, the signal that it’s safe to leave the archive. And of course your deadline is by now also uncomfortably imminent, if not somewhere behind you. The panic is propulsive.
Most historians spend their careers jumping from topic to topic. They finish a book on one subject and then move on to something different. Perhaps they stay within their general area of expertise, but they seldom spend their entire life working on the same project.
That is why I am so fascinated by the career of writer Robert Caro. After he won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for The Power Broker, a biography of New York developer Robert Moses, he spent the rest of his career writing about Lyndon B. Johnson. He won a second Pulitzer in 2002 for Master of the Senate, the third book in his projected five-volume biography of Johnson. He is currently at work on volume five.
Over at the Paris Review, Caro talks about his career, Lyndon Johnson, and how he writes. Here is a taste:
How do you research a subject?
First you read the books on the subject, then you go to the big newspapers, and all the magazines—Newsweek, Life, Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, then you go to the newspapers from the little towns. If something appeared there, you want to see how it’s covered in the weekly newspaper.
Then the next thing you do is the documents. There’s the Lyndon Johnson papers, but also the papers of everyone else—Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower—whom he dealt with. Or for The Power Broker, Al Smith’s papers, the Herbert Lehman papers, the Harriman papers, the La Guardia papers. But to stick with Johnson, the LBJ Presidential Library is just massive. The last time I was there, they had forty-four million pieces of paper. These shelves go back, like, a hundred feet. And there are four floors of these red buckram boxes. His congressional papers run 144 linear feet. Which is 349 boxes. A box can hold eight hundred pages. I was able to go through all of those, though it took a long, long time. This was when we were living in Texas for three years. Ina and I were spending five and a half days a week, typically, at the library.
The presidency is different. There’s no hope of reading it all. You’d need several lifetimes. But you want to try to do as much as possible, because you never know what you will find. You have to rely on all of the cross-referencing that the archivists have done. If it’s something really important, like a civil rights file, from 1964, 1965, or voting rights, you want to see everything. So I called for everything. But otherwise, you know you’re not seeing even a substantial percentage. You hope you’re seeing everything that really matters, but you always have this feeling, What’s in the rest?
So that’s the first three steps—the books, the newspapers and magazines, the documents. Then come the interviews. You try and find everybody who is alive who dealt with Johnson in any way in this period. Some people you interview over and over. There was this Johnson speechwriter, Horace Busby. I interviewed him twenty-two times. These were the formal interviews. We also had a lot of informal telephone chats. Once, he had a stroke. After he got better, he wrote Ina—he had a crush on Ina—“All I could think of when I went into the hospital was, ‘This will be hard on Robert, nobody else can tell him about the vice presidency.’ ” I came to love Buzz. But none of this is enough. You have to ask yourself, Are you making the reader see the scene? And that means, Can you see the scene? You look at so many books, and it seems like all the writer cares about is getting the facts in. But the facts alone aren’t enough.
I highly recommend The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, but don’t take my word for it. Listen to Little talk about Esther, women’s history, and biography in Episode 11 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.
It looks like we are not the only historians who like the book. Here is a taste of Little’s post:
The reports from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta keep rolling in here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Paul Putz is Ph.D student in American history at Baylor University writing a very interesting dissertation on the history of Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Paul reports from a session on the writing of religious biography. –JF
My first trip to the winter AHA/ASCH meeting was a whirlwind of activity. One of the best aspects was getting to meet many of the historians I’ve gotten to know online through twitter and blogging. It really seemed like many of the conversations we’ve had online seamlessly transitioned to the offline world.
Just before I made my way to Atlanta last week I read Slate’s study of popular history books, so I had biographies on my mind. Not surprisingly, Slate’s report found that the vast majority of trade press biographies published last year (71.7%) were of men. In that regard, the all-male biographical subjects featured on the panel would have fit right in. On the other hand, two of the three presenters on the panel were women, markedly different than the disparity between men and women when it comes to authorship of trade press biographies.
Sara Georgini, PhD candidate at Boston University and assistant editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, was up first. Her paper, part of a larger dissertation project on the religion of the Adams family from 1583-1927, featured the travels/pilgrimages of Charles Francis Adams Sr. (son of John Quincy Adams), looking at how they contributed to his spiritual development. Georgini also connected Adams’s experiences and reflections with the broader story of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism’s place within the United States.
The three papers were excellent, and I look forward to reading the larger projects once they hit the market. That said, I was a bit surprised that the papers didn’t really address questions of methodology. Rather than discussing new approaches to writing religious biographies, they were new religious biographies. Harvard Divinity professor David Holland helped to fill that void with his comments. Holland found commonalities in the approaches taken by the three papers – like any good biography, he said, all three turned on a surprise. And all tended to be sympathetic, listening closely to what the subjects of study said about themselves.
But even if they were sympathetic, Holland noted that the papers did not entirely escape the tendency to emphasize contemporary interests rather than those of the biographical subjects. Citing Perry Miller, Holland spoke of how biographers often “amputate” from their subjects what they don’t like or what they find unimportant to present concerns. This, Holland said, is an almost inescapable problem. So, too, is the tension between the uniqueness of the single biographical subject and the need to make big arguments or grand claims for the importance of one’s subject. In Holland’s view, biographies exist in tension between the “historicized particularity” and the “quest for significance” – and in that sense, the three papers did not necessarily offer markedly new approaches, but rather wrestled carefully with the age-old problems of the biographical angle.
All in all, it was an insightful and thought-provoking panel, one that I am very glad I attended. I also suspect that TWOILH’s fearless leader may have a thought or two about these questions and issues, given the subject of his first book.