Gordon Wood wants us to all write like David McCullough.

23 11 2009

Here’s Gordon Wood defending narrative history in the Washington Post:

Academic historians have not forgotten how to tell a story. Instead, most of them have purposefully chosen not to tell stories; that is, they have chosen not to write narrative history. Narrative history is a particular kind of history-writing whose popularity comes from the fact that it resembles a story. It lays out the events of the past in chronological order, with a beginning, middle and end. Such works usually concentrate on individual personalities and on unique public happenings, the kinds of events that might have made headlines in the past: a biography of George Washington, for example, or the story of the election of 1800. Since politics tends to dominate the headlines, politics has traditionally formed the backbone of narrative history.

“Resembles” a story? I thought that is a story. In any event, let’s continue w/ Wood:

Instead of writing this kind of narrative history, most academic historians, especially at the beginning of their careers, write what might be described as analytic history, specialized and often narrowly focused monographs usually based on their PhD dissertations. Recent examples include an account of artisan workers in Petersburg, Va., between 1820 and 1865, a study of the Republican Party and the African American vote between 1928 and 1952, and an analysis of the aristocracy in the county of Champagne in France between 1100 and 1300. Such particular studies seek to solve problems in the past that the works of previous historians have exposed; or to resolve discrepancies between different historical accounts; or to fill in gaps that the existing historical literature has missed or ignored. In other words, beginning academic historians usually select their topics by surveying what previous academic historians have said. They then find errors, openings or niches in the historiography that they can correct, fill in or build upon.

His solution?:

[T]he academics have generally left narrative history writing to the non-academic historians, who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive scholarship that exists. If academic historians want popular narrative history that is solidly based on the monographic literature, then they will have to write it themselves.

In other words, we should all write like David McCullough. Now I happen to like David McCullough, but this strikes me as an overreaction. If “narrative” history is mostly political, how are historians supposed to approach something like race, class or gender then? This reads to me like an attempt to get historians to change their topics rather than their methods using book sales as an excuse. He actually calls out a few unfortunate recent Ph.D.s by topic (but not by name):

“an account of artisan workers in Petersburg, Va., between 1820 and 1865, a study of the Republican Party and the African American vote between 1928 and 1952, and an analysis of the aristocracy in the county of Champagne in France between 1100 and 1300.”

Class. Race. Class. Is that a coincidence?

But writing about race, class and gender doesn’t have to be this way. I can think of any number of extremely well-written, well-researched narrative histories with narrow focuses and non-political topics: Boyle’s Arc of Justice, Green’s Death in the Haymarket. It is possible to write analytical history that tells a story. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the same access to publishers as David McCullough (or Gordon Wood for that matter).


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3 04 2013
Everyone their own professor (w/ apologies to Carl Becker). | More or Less Bunk

[…] tend to think of Becker’s speech most often during the periodic “Why can’t we all write like David McCulloch?” dust-ups that periodically echo through my profession. Nevertheless, Becker was no anarchist. He […]

25 04 2013
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