How Robert Caro Writes

CaroMost 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 Brokera 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 Senatethe 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:

INTERVIEWER:

How do you research a subject?

CARO:

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.

Read the entire interview here.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalOver at Black Perspectives, Keisha Blain of the University of Iowa interviews Dawn Durante of the University of Illinois Press about how to write a book proposal for a university press.

Durante acquires books in Asian-American history, Latino History in the Midwest, Black Studies, Digital Humanities, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Keisha N. Blain: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the process of writing the book proposal?

Dawn Durante: In my opinion, the major misconception about the purpose of the book proposal is that it is solely for the benefit of an editor or a publisher to gauge interest in the book project. Proposals can be a much more valuable tool that serve authors better when drafted well before the point of contacting an editor. I often get asked about when the right time is to be thinking about a book proposal. An author should begin crafting a proposal as soon as they are beginning to develop the book. When a scholar is preparing a proposal for a press, they must articulate key arguments, audiences, and lay out the framework and arc of the book. Many of these issues are aspects authors are thinking through (or should be thinking through) from the very conception of the project. For instance, if someone has not thought deliberately about the key stakeholders and most likely audience for the project prior to the proposal, then how has the book’s organization and writing style been appropriately designed and implemented? A proposal constructed at an early juncture can serve as a guide for the writing process and should be refined up until the point it is submitted to an editor. I have encountered authors who are hesitant to invest time in a proposal early on given all the competing commitments scholars have to deal with, and I certainly understand that. However, having a well-thought-out proposal on hand can be useful for a variety of job, grant, or fellowship applications, and more importantly, a fully conceived proposal can be a beneficial roadmap for an author from the very beginning of their project’s development.

Read the entire interview here.

Joyce Appleby: RIP

joyce-applebyJoyce Oldham Appleby, a giant in the field of early American intellectual and political history, died earlier this week at the age of 87.  If you are unfamiliar with Appleby or her work I encourage you to head over to The Junto and read Michael Hattem’s excellent obituary.

I never met Appleby, but I read and admired her work. I read Capitalism and a New Social OrderLiberalism and Republicanism in Historical Imagination,and Telling the Truth About History in graduate school.  Appleby’s published disagreements with Gordon Wood and others from the “republicanism” school of the American Revolution were staples on the reading lists of all early American graduate students in the 1990s.  Her book Inheriting the Revolution made me aware of the role memoirs could play in understanding the American Revolution and the early republic.

In 1996 Appleby and James Banner Jr. founded History News Service (HNS) in an attempt to get more academic historians to write for a public audience.  As a newly-minted history Ph.D who was trying to imagine a slightly different kind of career than the one I was encouraged to follow in graduate school, my interests intersected with the mission of HNS and I began sending op-eds to Appleby and Banner.  Anyone who wrote for HNS remembers the editorial good-cop (Appleby)/bad cop (Banner) routine they used when editing the work of those of us who were new to this genre of writing.  Banner would cover the piece with the proverbial red ink.  In my case he pushed me to write more succinct sentences and dispense of academic jargon.  Appleby was no less of a critic, but she had a softer, more encouraging, touch.  Both of them made me a better writer. Banner made me realize that it would take hard work to master the craft of public writing. (And I am certainly not there yet).  Appleby made me feel like there was actually a chance I could contribute to this genre.

After I learned that she had passed away I went back and re-read some of the e-mails she wrote to me in her role at HNS.  Here is one from 2004 that I will always remember:

“Excellent rewrite, John.  I am ready to turn this  over to Jim for fine-tuning.  I have made one suggestion in caps for your conclusion.  I hope that you will consider it.  Many thanks.  I wish you’d write more for HNS.  You are a natural writer.  Joyce

Joyce Appleby probably never thought again about the last two sentences of this e-mail, but this small kindness meant the world to me and kept me going.  Thanks, Joyce.  RIP.

Writing History for the Public

a1b2a-writingI am almost positive that at some point in the last seven years I have written a post with the same title as this one, but I am too lazy to check.  (OK–I just checked. A few have come close, but it looks like I have not written anything with the exact title).

I have stolen the title of this post from Jaime McClennen’s short post at Historical Communication.  If you are a graduate student or academic historian interested in writing history for the public I encourage you to check out some of McClennen’s links, including pieces by Michael Hattem and Liz Covart (published at The Way of Improvement Leads Home), and some of my own reflections on the subject.  (Thanks for the link, Jaime!).

Here is a taste of my January 2016 post “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing for Public Audiences“:

…If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, gave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Read the entire piece.

How to Write Academic History for a Public Audience

1477c-writing-center

Do you want to write good history for a general audience?  Alane Salerno Mason, the Executive Editor at W.W. Norton, offers some advice.

  1. Keep your introduction brief, and introductory
  2. People the story
  3. Let the people move
  4. Honor chronology
  5. Don’t bury your favorite details
  6. Avoid subtitles
  7. Don’t talk down to your audience
  8. Accept that some subjects are inherently of minor interest and others fall into genres that have become overcrowded
  9. A book should not be one’s first and only attempt to address the public.
  10. Break any rule when to do so serves a higher purpose

Check out Mason’s post at W.W. Norton to see how she unpacks these points.

Paul Harvey Reviews *The Bible Cause*

Bible Cause CoverCheck out his thoughtful and nuanced review at Religion Dispatches.

Here is a taste:

…A work of history is often about what its sources are about. And when the sources come directly from the archives of the institution, the language of the text inevitably recapitulates some of that voice. Fea places his story in a broad national context. He does so particularly effectively in earlier portions of the book, which cover the ABS’s early glory years. He ties the aims of the ABS to the broader culture of early nineteenth-century Federalist sympathizers who created national organizations in part to unite the new Republic and create the “Christian nation” they longed to see, but knew was not there, at least not yet.

The historical distance from the subject lessens at precisely the point when humanizing anecdotes appear. The emotional narratives of people collapsing in joy at receiving the promised texts, cherishing and never misusing them and so forth, raise questions of interpretation difficult to answer from within the requirements of the genre of institutional history. The answers that might emerge would have to come from questions and interpretive choices that necessarily breach the historical decorum required to produce an institutional history.

Put more simply, you are not supposed to bash the institution you have been commissioned to write a history about. Except that, actually it is possible. Fea critiques the ABS skillfully in parts of the text. For example, Fea describes the “Colored Agency” that emerged in the late nineteenth century. It was to replace a failed local auxiliary system that by definition could not work to supply Bibles to African Americans. But in doing so, the ABS “also revealed its willingness to embrace the status quo of a ‘separate but equal’ America.” I would say “separate and unequal,” but the point is well taken.

Another example comes from the passages in which Fea traces the various permutations the ABS has undergone as an organization. It has been all societies for all people at various times—a benevolent society in the nineteenth century, a service organization for much of the twentieth century, a business always because it sells Bibles, and today branding itself as a “ministry,” modeling the language of contemporary evangelicals. Throughout, and regardless of the type of organization it conceived itself as, the goal has been to spread the gospel through distributing Bibles, and “to build a Christian civilization.”

At its 150th anniversary meeting in 1966, Billy Graham spoke on the need to “Return to the Bible,” and endorsed the ABS’s historic raison d’être of distributing scriptures. The ABS subsequently moved into a new building in New York City, and resumed its work: “Scriptures needed to be distributed. Morality needed to be restored. And the United States needed to be returned to its biblical heritage.” Into the 1970s, the ABS sought to “reassert its historical connection to Christian nationalism” by realigning itself away from mainstream Protestants and more towards conservative evangelicals. This is Fea at his best—narrating a story effectively, and implicitly interpreting itprecisely by adopting the voice of the institution’s founders and followers but retaining a gently ironic distance in style….

 

Civil War Historian James McPherson on Writing

Battle_Cry_of_Freedom_(book)_coverOver at The Chronicle of Higher Education Rachel Toor interviews the Princeton historian, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and author of dozens of books on the Civil War-era.

Here is a taste of her interview:

How did you tackle such a gigantic project — writing the entire history of the Civil War in one volume?

McPherson: One chapter, or section of a chapter, at a time. I don’t write from an outline — I’ve tried it, and it proved to be a waste of time. In my head I had a general outline of the whole book and a somewhat more specific outline of what I hoped to cover in each chapter.

I would sit down to read the sources, secondary and primary, for each part of a chapter, and then write that part before going on to repeat the proc­ess many times until I had a complete book. As I wrote each paragraph, the subject of the next paragraph would become more clear in my mind, and that proc­ess repeated itself through countless paragraphs.

The second and third drafts rarely changed organization or substance; they focused on sentence structure, clarity, and finding just the right word (with frequent use of a thesaurus) in the right place. In revising at the sentence level, I would change the passive voice to active whenever possible, try to change “to be” and other nonaction verbs to action verbs, and to break up some compound or complex sentences into two or more shorter sentences when it seemed appropriate.

I also read my second draft aloud to myself as a way to catch sloppy or unclear syntax from two perspectives — sound as well as sight.

How did that book’s success affect you?

McPherson: It was a two-edged sword. On one edge, I enjoyed the praise and 15 minutes of fame that it earned, the royalties that it paid, the invitations to give lectures that paid additional fees, the prominence in the historical profession that I acquired, and other benefits of success. On the other edge, this notoriety cut deeply into family time, into the leisure for exercise and hobbies like tennis and bicycling that I had previously enjoyed, and into the peace and quiet that are part of a quality life that was eroded by my newfound prominence.

Read the entire interview at the Chronicle of Higher Education

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society: Update 119

Bible Cause CoverThe Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society is done.  Oxford University Press tells me that it will ship from the warehouse in the first week of March.

I have been pleased that several scholars have taken notice of the book’s release.  If all goes well, there will be a forum on the book at Religion in American History and HistPhil.  In November I will be making my first trip to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio for a roundtable on the book sponsored by The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts.

This is all very exciting, but it is also a bit scary.  How will the book be received?  Will it be “popular” enough for general audiences?  Will scholars dismiss my narrative approach?  Though this will be the fifth book that has appeared with my name on the cover. The anxiety does not go away.

With this in mind, I really resonate with Joseph Adelman’s recent piece, “Making the Academic-Public Audience Transition.”

Adelman just completed an academic monograph based on his dissertation and is now writing a trade history of the U.S. Post Office.  He writes:

Unlike the first book, Project #2 has a tight deadline in book terms. That means I’m trying to write a book more quickly and without the expanses of time one has during dissertation research. Second, it’s aimed at a general audience, which requires a different writing voice, a different way of thinking about notes and citations, and so on. I had thought that wouldn’t be as much of an issue because I have some experience with public writing, but the scale of the project has made that a bigger challenge. Third, the project has a much longer time span—I’m writing a general history of the Post Office in America from its beginnings in the seventeenth century up to whatever’s going on in Congress when I finish the final draft of the epilogue. That means a new set of sources, including some with which I am less than comfortable. Who knew that reading typewritten primary sources could be so discomfiting?

The largest challenge by far, however, has been trying to write a synthetic work. Unlike the first project, which involved years of archival research, my post office project needs to be completed relatively quickly and stay at a relatively broad level. I don’t have time to spend five years reading pamphlets on postage reform or studying newspaper accounts of the postal workers’ strikes in Chicago or New York in the 1960s and 1970s. I need to rely on other scholarship. That goes against my instincts as a historian, which tell me to go to the archives, to pull sources, to read deeply, to wrap my arms fully around a topic before I commit my thoughts to writing.

I’m not completely abandoning archival work, both because it’s in my blood and because the book needs some archival sources to be credible. But I am working on crafting a narrative that relies on other historians for the background and bringing my voice to the fore for the narrative. It’s something I do every week in the classroom when I write lectures or lead discussions. Putting it into a book manuscript has been more difficult.

I had these identical struggles when writing The Bible Cause.  I have written for general audiences before, but Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? was more didactic and argument-driven than The Bible Cause.  The task of writing the history of a 200-year old organization was not easy.  I had to produce a narrative that was about a mile wide and an inch deep.

In the end I had to abandon historiographical debates and focus on telling a story about the American Bible Society and how it intersected with the history of the United States. Whenever I found myself writing about how historians approach this or that subject, I replaced those paragraphs with an interesting story I had uncovered in the archives.

Adelman is right.  There really is a difference between writing academic history and synthetic history of general readers.  The training in academic writing that many of us received in graduate school is very hard to shake.

Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing “Academic History” and Writing History for Public Audiences

ancientI usually do a few of these posts a year, as the spirit moves.  Having a blog means that I can occasionally write autobiographically. Sabbaticals provide opportunities to do more of it.  So here we go again.

Over at the Scholarly Kitchen, Karin Wulf defends the importance of academic history writing.  Here is a taste:

…The question is what constitutes purposely “writing for the public,” and how that differs significantly from the writing academics do for one another — and which might also be of interest to the public. For historians this often boils down to “narrative” versus “argument.” “People care about stories, not arguments,” was one tweeted paraphrase of Lepore’s talk. Storytelling is one of the oldest human forms of communication. It is not a simple thing to tell a story well and with meaning. One of the masters of the genre (and Lepore’s teacher), John Demos, teaches a course on narrative history that pushes students to think about form and expression as well as evidence and argument. These debates about narrative versus argument have been happening for eons; I imagine Thucydides saying “look, guys, narrative is the only way to write history of the Peloponnesian War.”

The question ought not be, however, one versus the other. Academic writing is expository. For academic writing, argument is essential, and narrative is optional. Academic research is the accumulation of new information by many different means. The significance of this information is articulated through evidence-based argument, the heart of historical disciplinary practice. Argument doesn’t preclude narrative — a very fine writer can craft a narrative that conveys a variety of important arguments, but pure narrative can never substitute for argument in professional exchange.

Why not? Don’t professional historians appreciate a good story? Every historian I know loves a good story. Academic writing, however, is the formulation of research into new knowledge. That might be in the form of genuinely new information, or it might be an importantly fresh perspective or interpretation. Using new methods and tools as well as the regular revelation of new materials means that historians are generating new knowledge at a rapid clip.

So how do we know what’s new? A fundamental responsibility of academic writing is to explain the relationship of new scholarship to its forebears. Knowledge doesn’t accrete in a linear or progressive fashion, of course, but explaining how research and interpretation is related to the literature that’s come before it is fundamental to our evaluation of the work. After all, historians have been writing about the American Revolution since shortly after the American Revolution. As a professional historian, how would I know whether the next book I see on either an oft-studied topic or an entirely fresh subject is important to read and digest, to inform or incorporate into my own research perspective or plans, and to integrate into my teaching? I just watched an exchange between an experienced former journal editor and a manuscript reviewer who asked “if I think I’ve seen something like this argument before but I can’t quite place it, what should I do?” And of course the former editor encouraged the reviewer to try to address that issue as fully as possible, noting that expert peer reviewers play a key role in signaling to editors how a submission relates to the existing scholarship. In other words, historians are particularly attuned to the history of history.

I largely agree with Wulf here.  We need academic history. Scholarly articles and books find their way into databases that can be consulted later and perhaps even provide a scholarly foundation for popular writing on a given historical subject.  Academic scholarship is needed, even if the public audience is small or non-existent.  New knowledge must be advanced.

If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early Americagave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Maybe some of you feel the same way I do about all of this.  If so, send me an e-mail. Let’s talk.

Liz Covart on Popular History

Ballard

Covart: People like history books about ordinary lives

Why are popular history books popular?  It’s a great question.  Liz Covart, the host of Ben Franklin’s World, offers an answer.

 

Covart concludes that ordinary readers flock to popular history for three reasons.  First, because popular books feature people.  Covart suggests that people like books about the American founders, but they like stories about the lives of everyday men and women even more.  Second, popular books use “plain, evocative language.”  Third, popular books “make judgement calls.”

Here is a taste of her post:

Each week, I receive e-mails with requests that I present more episodes about how non-famous, non-elite men and women lived.

You know who tackles this topic best and writes about it the most?

Academic historians.

If readers want to read about everyday men and women, why are popular history books popular?

They are popular because they feature people readers can follow and live through vicariously. I suspect that many history lovers settle for books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they can’t find books about people like Martha Ballard or George Robert Twelves Hewes.

The feedback my listeners provide strongly suggests that they would love to read books about men or women who lived average lives; books that allowed them to witness the past through the eyes of someone like them.

Read the entire post here.

 

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update 118

Bible Cause CoverWell, the last time I updated the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home on my progress on The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I boldly announced that “I think the manuscript is finally out of my hands.”

I was wrong.

Apparently I did not realize that I told Oxford University Press that I would be preparing the index (as opposed to farming it out).  After about 15 hours of tedious indexing, I have just sent it off to Oxford.  So now I think I can say with some degree of certainty that the manuscript is out of my hands.

After writing five books, I have come to realize that each press handles indexing differently.  University of Pennsylvania Press asked me to prepare the index for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  If I remember correctly, I also did the index for Confessing History.  But Westminster/John Knox Press and Baker Academic did the indexes for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?, respectively.

On a related matter, the “Bible Cause” tour is shaping up. We have booked engagements at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, Lincoln Memorial University, the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University, and Trinity College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  A lot more are in the works.

If you want to host us shoot me an e-mail and we can set something up.  You may also want to consider a talk on The Bible Cause in conjunction with the Fall release of the Second Edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  I actually have been starting to think about The Bible Cause as a kind of sequel.

The last I heard, The Bible Cause will be released on March 1, 2016.

Term Paper Tips

It is that time of year again.  College students around the country are writing term papers.  I hope that some of them have been working on these papers all semester, but I imagine that a lot of them are just getting started, despite the fact the we are just about at the end of the Fall term.


If you need some last minute help on that history term paper, Adam Arenson of Manhattan College is here to help.  Check out his piece at History News Network: “How Your Term Paper Is Like an Episode of CSI.”

Here is a taste:

Keeping focused on the argument at hand. Television shows create and solve problems so well that they need to create dead ends and dismissed possibilities to keep viewers along for the ride.
Your research and writing process will have a lot of dead ends of on its own: hunches that don’t pan out, sources you can’t find, ways of framing the argument that turn out to be all wrong. Unlike TV, we generally don’t want to hear about them, but it is worth including a few of the alternative explanations that rival your argument, and demonstrate why your thesis is the one that will carry the day, not that idea the police captain at the desk insists is correct.
Condensing research into its most effective form. Do you notice how television shows ask for DNA evidence and get it immediately? Or say they will go through all the surveillance footage for the past three weeks, and then cut to the telling clip? That’s because they don’t have time to show you how long these procedures really take, between the actual labor and the lab backlogs (which are months, years, and even the equivalent of never-tested rape kits in some states). Skipping the tedium, and the waiting, and the uninteresting dead ends means that results magically appear: the perfect evidence for the search is revealed succinctly, and the chase moves on.
Your research paper should do the same thing. For a quality research paper, you will read lots and lots of things that aren’t relevant to your paper, and find evidence that isn’t quite good enough to make it into the text. That’s the nature of the business—so don’t put that dross in your paper. It can all go in your bibliography, and some can go in your citations as “For similar cases, see….”. Even an invaluable source will go on at length, and that isn’t an invitation for a long block quotation. Take the juiciest bits, string them together with ellipses, and keep moving.


Read the entire piece here.

What is An Academic Book?

Check out Tom Cutterham‘s nice post at The Junto on what defines an academic book.  Here is a taste:

Is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring an academic book? Is Mary Wollestonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman? The list of twenty nominees for “the academic book that has most changed the world,” part of the UK’s Academic Book Week, is a pretty confusing collection. Plato’s Republic is a product of the academy, sure, but is George Orwell’s 1984? In the US, we’re in the middle of University Press Week, which is a much more easily-identifiable category. We should all celebrate the important role of university presses in preserving scholarly endeavour from the rapacious maw of the market. In the face of ever-deeper cuts, they deserve our vigilant support.

But if every university press book is, in some sense at least, an academic book, it doesn’t work the other way around. Some of the books that have influenced me most have been published by trade and independent presses. Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, rightly mentioned by one of our commenters on Chris’s post, was published by W.W. Norton and Co. Jill Lepore’s intellectually inspiring biography of Sarah Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. Those are both venerable, high-status imprints that frequently publish scholarship for a wide audience…
Are we to understand that academic books are those read only by academics and their ever-diligent, hardworking, curious students? That’s one possible explanation for such a list, but if it were true, it would be a tragedy. University presses can and frequently do publish work that has a general reader foremost in mind. I’m a big fan of William Hogeland’s Founding Finance, published by the University of Texas Press. Oxford University Press has put out accessible work like Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment (distributed by Random House in the US) and Patrick Griffin’s brilliant America’s Revolution. It also publishes Very Short Introductions such as Richard Bernstein’s on The Founding Fathers. Harvard University Press, meanwhile, has had its share of bestsellers.

Cutterham’s post is on the mark.  So-called “academic books” that make an argument or contain footnotes are published by university presses and trade presses.  The main difference is how the publisher chooses to define the book and ultimately promote it.  “Academic books” tend to be published by the academic side of a university press (if they have one).  They are not usually marketed to brick and mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble.  They are marketed to libraries.  They are usually published with a price-point above forty dollars.  The press does not usually assign a publicist to promote these books.

Non-academic books, or trade books, are marketed to brick and mortar shops.  They usually sell for less than thirty dollars. They are assigned a publicist.  And the author advance (against future royalties) on such books tend to be a lot larger.

You may think that you wrote a trade book, but if you can’t get a trade publisher (or a university press with a trade division) or a literary agent to agree with you, the book will be sold and marketed as an “academic” book.

Historiann "Brings the Fire"


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Earlier today I published a post on Robert Zaretsky’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the University of Houston professor laments, among other things, the failure of historians to tell stories in their work.  He also points to an earlier generation of historians who seemed to have a larger audience and more cultural influence because they wrote for the public.  Finally, he offers a pretty depressing account of life in graduate school.


Historiann, aka Anne Little, the prolific blogger and Colorado State University history professor, is having none of it.  Here is a taste of her post:

Seriously?  The “we’ve forgotten how to tell stories” line again?… Whenever I see that old line trotted out about “dying a death by a thousand monographs,” I see someone getting ready to push someone else out of the lifeboat, or at least hear him tell some kids to get off his lawn.

Enough of the “golden age” fantasies about the awesome, well-paid, and always well-respected scholars of yore.  When is your imagined “golden age” for history in these United States–the early and mid-nineteenth century, when only Gentlemen Scholars wrote history and bent it to their Protestant, white, male, triumphalist ends?  Just how many of those historians were actually making a living at it?  Just about none?  Alrighty then.

Or is your “golden age” the so-called “progressive” era, when loads of German-speakers had university jobs but lost them in World War I, because it would be a bad thing to be able to read and write an enemy language?  Was it the post-World War II era, when the G.I. Bill permitted universities like mine (formerly “Colorado A&M–for eighth-grade graduates!”) to expand, but at the same time Cold War politics meant firing a lot of faculty for their current or past Communist ties (or for the mere suspicion of Communism?)  Was it the fat and happy 1960s, when faculty were hired in great numbers but also fired for supporting students in the antiwar movement?  (It happened in my department back in the day.)
And in all of these previous eras, someone like me would have been as unwelcome as a fly at a picnic, because university faculties were overwhelmingly white and male.  I’m white, but as they say:  close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!  
Guess what, friends?  I hate to break it to you, but being an intellectual has never been a very good career move in the United States.  So as I see it, our options are 1) don’t become a historian, 2) become a historian and try not to offend anyone with your informed opinions, or 3) (my choice) enjoy your outlaw status, whether or not you collect a paycheck.  Piss some people off!  Write a few books because no one else will!  Start a blog!  Start a podcast!  Make friends, influence people!  If you have tenure, use it.  Enjoy fame, if not fortune, on social media.
Two thoughts:
First, I love the last paragraph above.  Thanks, Ann!
Second, Historiann may not be white or male, but she does have tenure (I assume) and thus has the security to let it rip in posts like this. I am guessing that most graduate students and pre-tenure professors, whether they like it or not, relate more to Zaretsky’s description of academic life. 

Studying the Early Life of Great Intellectuals

How does the early life–the childhood or the adolescent years–shape the mature thought of American intellectuals?  Over at U.S. Intellectual History Paul Croce, a historian at Stetson University, thinks it is very important for seven reasons.  Here is a taste of his post:

Historians pay attention to change. Students of the past need no reminding about the evolution of societies, the relationship of ideas to their times, and the contingencies of life. But some unhistorical thought can slip into historical study with exclusive focus on the finished products of a thinker’s work without considering the evolutionary steps toward those creations.
Such a focus can be very tempting; after all, those later productions are generally the most thought out and refined; in the same spirit, who would consider submitting a first draft for publication? But in the course of a life, the equivalents to those early drafts are more than just messy versions of later productions; they can harbor clues to a thinker’s drives and goals, often presented in still more raw form than later texts and creations.
I call this “developmental biography,” the method of attention to an intellectual’s creations over time, in development; the method involves placing an idea not only in contextual history, but also in the thinker’s own history. Consider then these reasons to take a closer look at early life when evaluating the figures of intellectual history:
1-Examining an idea in development, especially through the life path of the idea’s creator in development, brings attention to the choices made during stages of thinking, and to the contexts surrounding those choices. This focus can reveal not only the influences on thought, but also the development of commitment. The culminating theory itself remains important, generally with greater depth and nuances, but the path of development shows how the composer cared enough to create it.

For the other six reasons, read Croce’s entire post.  

This kind of developmental biography is not easy. Primary materials on the early life of intellectuals–or any figure in history for that matter–is difficult to find.  My biography of Philip Vickers Fithian (who was certainly not a famous intellectual) could only gesture toward the kind of culture in which he was raised due to lack of documentary evidence.  If he wrote anything prior to the age of eighteen it does not exist.

Anthony Grafton: "I never felt I could claim to be a writer…"

Anthony Grafton at Messiah College, Feb 28, 2012

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education Rachel Toor has published a piece on Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton.  The article focuses on Grafton’s approach to teaching writing.  The Princeton professor has written scholarly books and articles for popular publications such as the American Scholar and The New York Times, but he insists that he is not a “writer.”  

Here is a taste of Toor’s piece.

…he insists that he is not a writer: “I’ve never felt I could claim to be a writer in that full sense. It just seems arrogant.”
Grafton’s upbringing surely had something to do with his view on that. I had assumed, when I was classics editor at Oxford University Press and heard Grafton’s name tossed around with admiration, that he was one of those tweedy guys who talk as if their mouth is filled with marbles. And then I learned that his name, like my own, was a crypto-ethnic mask.
His story: “I am as Eastern European Jewish as you can be — my father’s family came from Vilna, my mother’s from Odessa. But when my father was working on a Philadelphia newspaper, his boss came to him and the other young Jewish man with whom he shared an office, and said, ‘Boys, you’re smart. I have just bought the New York Post and I want to bring you there. But you can’t have names like yours in New York.’ So they went and changed their names the same day. Isidore Feinstein became I.F. Stone, and my dad, Samuel Lipshutz — who, unlike Izzy, was pissed off — became not Samuel Lipton but Samuel Grafton, since Grafton was the most WASP name he could think of (he was born on Grafton Street in Brooklyn).”
When I read Tony Grafton’s writing in places like The New York Times, The American Scholar, or The Chronicle, I am reminded of a favorite quote from Pascal: “When we encounter a natural style we are always surprised and delighted, for we thought to see an author and found a man.” Grafton’s prose twinkles with generosity and compassion. Even when he’s focused on the Big Problems — the “crises” in history, the humanities, education — he can describe the landscape and, while never ignoring dark clouds, refrain from Chicken Little-ing and instead suggest practical solutions.
From his father, who he says was a “real” writer, Grafton learned the importance of knowing not only how to begin but when — to learn to be patient enough to wait until you have an idea of where you want a piece to go. “It’s a matter of establishing your voice on the page, in the first sentence, while hoping to win the reader’s attention and not put her off,” he says. “I like to do it with stories and metaphors, something I learned how to do while learning to lecture about history to undergraduates.
Grafton concludes:
As Grafton confesses, “I worry every time that I send something in that the editor in question will tell me it’s total crap and wash his/her hands of me. I think it’s necessary: Like the nervousness I feel before every lecture in a course I have given 20 times.”
And did I mention he likes what we are doing in the Messiah College Department of History?

Writing History for Teenagers

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion interviews M.T. Anderson, the author of a couple of young-adult historical novels, including The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation.

Here’s a suggestion:  Every academic historian should attempt to write a book for a teenage audience.  It would help them rid their prose of jargon and be better story-tellers.


Here is a taste of Onion’s interview:


In writing for a younger audience, you must have had to make some choices about how much of that stuff they’d be interested in or how much to step back and write about the history as a story. How did you decide that? 
When I was in high school, I went for one year to a British boarding school, Winchester College. And I was taking a one-year history course on Anglo-Saxon history. On the first day of class the teacher said, “We’re going to be studying England during the Anglo-Saxon period for a year. There is plenty of time for us to read every single source that is related to Anglo-Saxon history. You will have the same tools the historian does. You will have read everything they could read.” Obviously we were 17 years old, so we weren’t going to make any incredible leaps of historical knowledge, but at the same time it was so exciting to us to think, “This set of five or six long documents, this is the core of what’s known, and we’ll have the tools to debate it.”
There are some interesting points of clarification in the book—I’m thinking of the footnote where you describe the difference between communism, socialism, and Marxism. [At the end of the 200-word footnote, Anderson concludes: “While these terms—Bolshevik, Communist, Marxist, socialist, and Soviet—are sometimes used interchangeably, many people have died to make distinctions among them.”] How do you decide, with a concept like this, which is something historians spend their lives debating and trying to clarify, how much of it to talk about in a book that’s for people who are 16 or 17?
That is a total killer. That’s a real challenge of doing this. It was a little weird to put it in a footnote. Most of the facts I try to fit into the general flow of a narrative, and yet that is such a complicated set of terms that I felt like it didn’t fit into the flow. It slowed it down; and yet it’s vital. So yeah, because realizing also that, the kids I’m writing for have no memory of the Cold War, which was over more than a decade before they were born. That’s a complicated thing when kids don’t necessary have any context at all. That footnote was important to me, because the term socialism is used so often in this country and not really understood well; it was important to me to actually explain what it means. Because otherwise I felt like you read through this book and you realize Nazism is called National Socialism; Stalin is always talking aboutsocialism; and then you think it comes across as “socialism is evil.” Unfortunately, it has been simplified in this country. We don’t tend to realize that our firemen and our schools and our roads are, in a sense, socialist creations. 

Narrative History

I want to write narrative history, but I still struggle to shake off the graduate training that has conditioned me to write analytically.  In my forthcoming book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I dabble a bit with narrative, but often find myself coming back again and again to the kind of arguments that might appear in a traditional historical monograph. (My readers will have to decide whether my book works as a narrative history).


Don’t get me wrong, I think that a book focused on analysis and argument can still be written in a way that is accessible for a general reader. This is what I tried to do in parts of The Bible Cause. But I do think that narrative is a more effective way of reaching lay readers.

With all of this in mind, I am looking forward to the conversation on narrative scheduled to appear this week at The Junto.  Here is a taste of Tom Cutterham’s introductory post:

Should historians embrace the art of narrative, or treat it with more suspicion? In his review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton back in July, USIH’s Kurt Newman argued that “the book-length narrative” is not “the proper form for the presentation of a historical argument.” Narrative, he wrote, involves too much selection, too many authorial choices hidden from the reader. “Most importantly,” Newman suggested, “constructing a narrative is almost always tied up with some telos or end,” a teleology that serves as expression or conduit of ideology, pulling us towards the outcome we imagine fits. Narrative, in other words, is something more than reasoned argument. It enlists desire to shape the way we think.

For the rest of the week here at The Junto, we’ll be holding a round-table event on narrative in historiography, and we invite you to join in in the comments. What makes something a “book-length narrative,” or what distinguishes narrative history from any other kind? Are there alternatives to narrative that we should be adopting? How does narrative work—or fail—in journal articles and other non-book forms? We would love to hear about your favourite examples of narrative and non-narrative historiography. We’ll be sharing some of our own this week too.

Writing History Seminar

Are you a historian who wants to write for the public?  This monthly seminar at The New School for Social Engagement looks excellent.


Writing History is a seminar for faculty, graduate students, and exceptional undergraduate students, focused on the pleasures and challenges of writing history for a wider public. We put aside a history essay’s content, context, or historiography in order to hone our approach to the writing process—from style, pacing, and word choices to questions of audience, publishers, and of the changes wrought by digital media.
We will meet six Fridays, from noon to 2 p.m,at
The New School for Social Engagement
66 W 12th Street, Room A510 (corrected)Those who respond a week in advance will have a lunch reserved for them. 
2015-2016 Schedule
9/18/2015       Nell Painter, History through Digital Collage: Art History by Nell Painter Volume XXVII, Ancestral Arts
10/9/2015       Adam Arenson, This is Not How My Book Starts–Or Is It? Introductions, Tables of Contents, and the Writing Process
11/13/2015     Nathan Connolly, “Who Did What to Whom?” and Other Writing Hazards
1/29/2016       Edward Ball, Writing History Using Family History
3/4/2016         Maria Montoya, Ideas, People, and Place: Biography and Geography in the Progressivism of Rockefeller and Roche
4/1/2016         Bruce Dorsey, A Doctor’s Visit and a Murder in a Mill Town: Experimenting With Perspective