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History And How To Write It

July 2024
13min read

In the period before the appearance of the new AMERICAN HERITAGE, when the Society of American Historians was studying was of establisliing n sound popular magazine of history, the following article mis written by tlie late Dixon Wecter. its a kind of charter for sitcli a magazine. Wecter lent his buoyant personality, keen mind, mid ricli fund of knowledge to many worthy enterprises. This Texas-born product of Iiaylor, Yale, and Oxford was first of all a writer of history, as his three principal volumes, The Saga of American Society , The Hero in America , and The Age of the Great Depression , impressively attest. He was a valued university tendier and public lecturer; for a time he was director of research at the 11 unling/on Library, ami literary executor of the Mark Twain estate. .Is a sparkling exposition of some fundamental principles, this article will be read with interest by everyone; as a statement of Dixon Whecter’s own ideals of historical writing it has a special poignancy to all who lament his untimely death as a loss to American letters. —Allan Nevins

Achimpanzee with a stack of empty boxes and a banana hanging out of reach soon learns by his own experience. Hut man alone learns from the experience of others. History makes this possible. In the broadest sense all that we know is history. More strictly, it is the road map of the past. True, the terrain never repeats itself to the last detail, any more than does the ribbon of highway sweeping past a motorist. But the contours, with all their variations, give the alert observer knowledge about safe driving and, often, clues about what lies ahead, since resemblances of a general sort occur endlessly. The past is also a fascinating story for its own sake, shedding light upon the eternal behavior of human beings, singly and in the mass, adding richly to any reader’s knowledge about himself and the world he lives in.

Some think ol history as the process of accumulating bundles of {acts, dates, statistics, lor storage in some antiquarian’s bin or scholar’s cupboard. But it is a great deal more, namely, a review of the success and failure of man’s life on this planet. History examines the rise and Tall of nations and cultures, with their heroes and political leaders, and the often ragged record ol mankind’s experiments in living together through war and peace, its struggles lor bread and leisure and faith, its germinal ideas and collective symbols.

History was once written and taught mainly as a tale of intrigue and bloodshed. In those days arose the old French proverb that “happy is a nation which has no history.” By the light of a better definition this saying seems ioolish. A cultural group, and indeed the whole human race, keeps its character precisely because it cherishes some remembrance of things past. Whether this memory is an ennobling one, say, the influence of the Lincoln tradition in American life, or a corrupting one such as the efïect wrought by Bismarck upon the behavior of modern Germany, is another matter. At all events, the remembered past is a present and powerful thing for good or evil. Croce spoke truly when he said that all living history is contemporaneous.

What is “the past”? One of the most elastic ideas ever conceived by mind, it ranges from the remotest records left on earth down to the wake of the second hand as it sweeps around the dial. People who urge us to “live in the present” rarely weigh the literal meaning of their advice. “The present,” that infinitesimal spark gone before we can photograph it on our brain, comes close to being an illusion. “The future” is still more impalpable since its content and impact upon us have not yet been registered. Beside these two concepts, “the past” seems curiously solid and real. It represents time and events met, realized, and built into the fabric- ol understood experience. Man is not only the sole creature able to learn from what happened to others, miles and centuries away, but also the only one capable ol stretching the so-called present to its maximum. We do this unconsciously when talking about “the present day” or “the present generation.” By just such an extension in time, all history that interests us and has something to tell us is living history.

Like other good things, history can be abused and misused. A dull narrator can make even its most meaningful chapters seem drab and unimaginative—an act of exhumation, followed by a grim inventory of the bones. Mr. Dooley once observed that “history is a post-mortem examination. It tells ye what a country died iv.” Condescension toward the past is a graver mistake. For example, the darkness of what used to be termed the Dark Ages existed chiefly in the minds of the analysts.

History can also be abused by carelessness in handling the facts or a desire merely to make them sensational and shocking. Still worse, the muse called Clio can be sold down the river to become the handmaid of propaganda, bra/enly perverting the truth. Tn a mood of cynicism Mark Twain once declared, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” To a history student forced to read between the party lines—the school children of Hitler’s Reich or those under the Soviet Politb’fcro—freedom to learn and reach one’s own conclusions becomes just as impossible as to the student of sciences similarly debauched.

Yet history, along with kindred social studies like ethnology, anthropology, and sociology when honestly used helps enormously to splinter those barriers of prejudice and explode those lies which create hatred between races, sections, and national groups. Few indeed are the bigots and reactionaries found among true historians. Anybody setting out sympathetically to re-create the past can hardly help becoming less of a provincial himself, in both time and space. Among history’s inescapable lessons, for example, are the folly of aggressive war, the stupidity of persecuting others because of their race or opinions, and the futility of trying to destroy the freedom of the mind.

The American record is not (lawless, as we all know. The nation whose literature and history lack vigorous self-criticism is more apt to illustrate the suppression of free speech than the attainment of alleged perfection. But on the whole, from the Founding Fathers on, the American panorama is one we need not blush to own, one in which we may often take hearty pride. This is a history good citizens need to know, to understand their world and to be able to improve it. With our faith in majority government we see the importance of clearer self-knowledge for those expected to do the thinking and voting.

This need applies not only to the nation, but to each region and state with its especial traditions and interests. Yet masses of local records, letters, diaries, private papers, business archives, and old-timers’ recollections are being lost year after year, by decay, fire, and death, all through simple ignorance. A lriend of mine remembers an intelligent young woman in St. Joseph, Missouri, who after hearing a talk a couple of years ago on the centennial of the Hannibal St. (oe Railroad—in which the speaker described its background of courage and hope as it battled great odds to become an important feeder into the frontier West—came up and told him, “I didn’t know that was history. I didn’t know the Midwest had a history. 1 thought history was Plymouth Rock and Bunker Hill.”

Ignorance about what happened in our town, state, region, and country, as well as to our neighborsill this age when all nations are neighbors—is bad citi/enship in any policy-making democracy. So it has always been. But today, when we find ourselves the foremost champion of democracy in times of unprecedented physical power, such ignorance is not only shameful but dangerous.

And yet a century ago the reading of history was much more popular among educated people than it seems today. The school and college student used to get at least a smattering of Xenophon, Thucydides, Caesar, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus, and then in his adult years, for pleasure, read not only Gibbon and Macaulay and Carlyle but our home-grown historians like Washington living, Prescott, Parkman—best sellers all. Jl the decline of Latin and Greek is responsible for ground lost on the former front, the blame for our retreat on the second sector lies gravely with those now writing American history.

For all its huge, able, often highly original output, the last half century of American research has yielded almost no great books worthy to stand as literature beside the classics of our first hundred years. Industry minus art, accumulation lacking charm, data without digestion—such shortcomings explain this popular allergy against American history as written. A great many school texts are pretty repulsive, while history lor the adult seems hardly more inviting. Alter diligently harvesting the grain of fact, too few investigators seem to have time left for threshing out the chaff or milling the Hour. Their energy is exhausted long before the job is done—so that readers have to choose between the pedant’s dry straw and the half-baked loaf turned out by historical romancers.

How not to write history is the first question. Surely it need not be penned in the grand manner once the vogue. The Duc de Sully always put on court dress before sitting clown to work on his memoirs, just as French surgeons in the day of Lisfranc used to garb themselves for a major operation in white tie and tails as befitted the august encounter between life and death. Edward Gibbon, though among the greatest of historians, often wearies modern readers with his massive style. The so-called father of American history, George Bancroft, had a hankering for resonant periods like “The pusillanimous man assents from cowardice, and recovers boldness with the assurance of impunity.” The stilted-heroic in writing is now as much out of fashion as the equestrian statue.

Then came the scientific approach to history, which tightened up research methods, fostered thoroughness, and pruned away some of the flowers of rhetoric. Under the guidance of many German and a few British and American scholars who gloried in the epithet “colorless,” historians began to think themselves successful when their writing grew chilly and impersonal. But it is well to remember that the pioneer of that tribe, the Prussian von Ranke, called history both a science and an art.

The writing of good history is just that. As a science it can make no compromise with the slipshod and false; as an art it must sei/,e upon the durable and significant, firmly rejecting the rest. The doting antiquary, like the untaught Mohammedan, saves every scrap of paper blown his way by the wind because it might contain the sacred name of Allah. But the scholar of broad vision cannot shirk his job of selection. Horse sense, independence, and strict integrity are vital to the good writing of good history. Neither Ghesterton and Belloc, on the extreme Catholic right, nor Bukharin and Tarle, on the Marxist left, are trustworthy guides through the mazes of the past. If the historian warps his evidence to fit some prejudice or preconceived pattern, he has failed us. The late Charles Beard came more and more to advocate the deliberate cultivation of “assumptions” by the historian, but applying his own counsels of defeat Beard declined steadily from front rank into the role of propagandist and ax-grinder. Trends in whitewashing or debunking come and go, but history written with a steady hand will outlast them all.

This doesn’t mean that a good historian must be drained of individuality—a research automaton for dredging up facts and offering them to the public in a mechanical scoop. Nor does it require him to lack personal stability or a core of conviction about principles, like those whom Shaw has described as having minds so open there is nothing left but a draft.

If the author’s saturation in his subject is so real that he develops affections and dislikes, his writing is sure to be more warm and vigorous than if he strikes the attitude of a biologist dissecting a frog. On a basis of sound inquiry and reasoned belief he should form those value judgments from which no historian worth his salt must flinch. We simply demand that he treat the material fairly, give an accounting for the generali/ations he draws, and, while playing his thesis to win, never stack the cards. He cannot fabricate evidence- whether documents, conversations, or incidents. At this fork he parts company with the romancer. What the storied and spacious past needs is not invention but insight and interpretation.

Yet the field of current literature is thickly populated with burrowing scholars too indifferent to write well and with slick fictioneers too la/y to dig for themselves. Public taste naturally favors the latter, and so the historical romance stays entrenched atop the best-seller list year after year. The quality of such books is as variable as the barometer, usually rising in direct relation to their fidelity to sources. Thus, while Kenneth Roberts and Margaret Mitchell have mixed sound history and original research with their dramatic gifts, Heaven help those whose knowledge of the past depends upon Howard Fast or Taylor CaIdwell.

If the professional historians see the flag of popular following wrenched from their grasp by the romancers, as I have said, they have largely themselves to blame. A great deal of the fault lies with the bloodlcssncss of so much académie writing—the traditions of dull competence that have grown up about the Ph.D. dissertation and the learned monograph. Instead of “wearing all that weight of learning lightly like a flower,” in Tennyson’s phrase, these savants wear it not a little pridefully like a ball and chain. This is not to disparage solid scholarship or belittle necessary toil over government documents, statistics, diaries, and all manner of dusty archives. Parkman and Prescott drudged too, before achieving a distillate of crystal clarity and palatable flavor.

Some years ago, before the illustrious heyday of Winston Churchill, George M. Trevelyan grumbled that history was no longer read widely because it had ceased to be written by “persons moving at large in the world of letters or politics” like his great-uncle Macaulay. It is perhaps too much to require the average historian to sit in Parliament or Congress or Cabinet, to plunge up to the neck in the civic activities of his time, travel all over the globe, steep himself in a dozen languages and cultures, or even write poetry and fiction as aids to his craftsmanship in the manner ol Carl Sandburg. Any of these experiences, however, will enrich him. Think of those lively annalists of early Virginia, for instance, like Robert Beverley, William Byrd, and Thomas Jefferson—planters and men of affairs, business, and politics, who wrote all the better for the versatility of their lives. Or of the later historian-statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt, Albert J. Beveridge, and Woodrow Wilson.

Some of our best professionals have been the least sedentary. A zest for field work adds freshness, originality, and vigor to the sinews of writing—as instanced by Francis Parkman’s journey over the Oregon Trail and sojourn among the Sioux; Douglas S. Freeman’s patient exploration of every crater in the battlefields of northern Virginia; Samuel Fliot Morison’s sailing with the Navy in the Second World War. Before writing Admiral of the Ocean Sea Morison navigated the Atlantic in a sailing boat comparable to the Santa Maria —in fact doing almost everything Columbus did except discover America. The feel of an ax or a ride butt or fishing rod in the hand, a pack at the back, wind upon the face, salt air in the nostrils, are all good disciplines lor the writing of history. An apt historian learns of the past through all his senses. I once met an eccentric spinster archaeologist who claimed that she could date any Roman aqueduct by the flavor on her tongue of its crumbling masonryshe had tasted them all.

Too often the savor of drama, the-sense of reliving the past, the communicable thrill ol a story to tell, is buried under the accretion of data. Yet history is inevitably dramatic. The very word comes from the same root as “story”; narration is of the essence. A sense of comedy has its place at the historian’s elbow no less than tragedy. The re-creation of a dominant personality, or daily life of an era, or the power generated by its ideas, calls lor exact knowledge fired by historical imagination. To say also that the chronicle of great events calls for a touch of poetry is not to call do\vn upon us showers of cadencée! prose and purple passages, beloved of the swashbucklers and patrioteers. It means that powers of symmetry, proportion, aesthetic design, controlled emotion, even a knack of playfulness, and at high moments a certain unforced eloquence can be summoned into the service of truth.

The artist’s structural gift—not merely the lumping together of details to be hurled at the reader like a soggy snowball—yields writing that can be read with pleasure. The structure ought to be clean and firm, yet not obtruding the bones of its skeleton. Topic sentences should marshal the squadrons of argument along without seeming to be drillmasters. Passages spongy xvith the deadwood of jargon or encrusted with barnacles of cliché, or ranging from the highbrow-recondite to the insultingly obvious, quotations herded in such droves as to suggest that the writer is too timid to speak for himself—these vices have no place on the pages of good history.

The best writing has been defined as the richest thoughts put into the simplest language. As applied to history, such discourse should resemble the easy, informal, but never careless talk of a well-educated man speaking to friends. To bore, to shout, to preach, to patronize, to grow flabbily garrulous, are all bad manners in society, that is, among intelligent readers who happen to be nonspecialists. A classroom full of students cannot choose but hear, but professors should never forget that the common reader finds it all too easy to shut his book or chuck the magazine into the wastebasket. The pretentious, the sentimental, and the flippant are prone to invite such treatment.

A good writer varies his pace to suit the mood and his reader’s comfort. The crisp, clear statement is his staple. The staccato sentence belongs to the pulse of modern living, to journalism as well as the age of planes and high explosives, but it can be exaggerated just as surely as Clarendon and Hume and Montesquieu overworked the compound-complex sentence, geared to the era of Augustan Latinity, of oxcarts and sailing ships. Nevertheless, the best English and French historians of modern times give us models in writing that many an American might well imitate. These scholars overseas skillfully conceal the grubbing that laid their foundations, the scaffolding that made possible the walls—just as the bright Oxford undergraduate of my day “swotted” furiously over his books during the long vacation with no observers at hand, and returned in termtime to the unhurried career of a gentleman and sportsman. The one thing that a writer need not communicate is all the pain and toil that went into his finished product.

Nothing said here is meant to give aid and comfort to the elegant triiler with the Horace Walpole touch in historiography. His species has never rooted deeply in American soil. As a people we have always put such stress upon factual content, specialization, and accomplishment, as to turn the old Greek maxim “Know thyself” into the American vulgate as “Know thy stuff.” Dilettantism has never been our besetting sin and needs no encouragement now.

But the historian who joins ripe learning to skill and charm in the telling commands the ear not only of the American public but also of the world—whose hunger for clarification among the welter of ideas in which we live made Spengler and H. G. Wells such phenomenal successes after the First World War, and Arnold Toynbee after the Second.

The historian who can write has a sobering responsibility. He is not only promised a wide and interested audience reading over his shoulder, but also assured that posterity will borrow many of its ideas from him, whether true or false. The reputation of Tiberius has been blackened for all time by the brilliant calumnies of Tacitus. Cromwell will always be a hero in shining armor to the devotees of Carlyle, and Warren Hastings a double-dyed villain to the thousands who still cherish their Macaulay. Two such diverse Presidents of the United States as Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt have been deeply concerned about the verdict of posterity—as evidenced, among other signs, by great libraries of their personal papers which they endowed supposedly to the end of time.

A readable historian of his own times will be accepted as the foremost witness par excellence, generation after generation. But by way of compensation, the historian who arrives on the scene long afterwards enjoys advantages too. Though a million details, important and unimportant, will be lost for lack of recording or proper preservation, the disclosure of diaries and secret archives, the fitting together of broken pieces from the mosaic, the settling of controversial dust and cooling of old feuds, and the broad perspective down the avenues of time, all make it possible for him to know an era in its grand design better than most men who lived through it.

To remind ourselves again of Croce’s saying that all living history is contemporaneous, the recorders of that history—the writers who make it real for the largest number of people—are those who lend it the gift of immortality and the power to affect thoughts, emotions, and deeds centuries after the event.


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