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The Art of History or, Better, The Historiographical Artifice

As a non-professional historian, I had never heard of Samuel Eliot Morison until recently when I ran across his brief manifesto, History as a Literary Art. This brief work calls for historians to return to the sort of writing–literary and artistic writing–that makes previous histories, works by people like Macaulay, Gibbon, Prescott, or, going back a couple more years, Thucidydes, marvelously readable.

In short order and marshaling an impressive cadre of sources, Morison argues that the best history is not only factually rich but textually rich. It is written in a manner that can inform the expert and the interested observer alike.

Now, the purpose of this quick, warm synthesis between research, thinking, and writing is to attain the three prime qualities of historical composition–clarity, vigor, and objectivity. You must think about your facts, analyze your material, and decide exactly what you mean before you can write it so that the average reader will understand.

Compare this clear, vigorous, and (I would argue) objective piece of prose with something culled from a recent historical journal:

Legitimation is the often veiled process creative of and prior to the formation and use of power. The study of legitimation in connection with the American presidency has been so neglected (in comparison to the study of that office’s governance roles) that an internal analysis of the Gettysburg Address, a probably paradigmatic example of presidential legitimation role playing, may yield concepts and patterns of wide utility.

In fairness to the more recent author, I should note that these sentences come from the article’s abstract. The actual body of the text reads more clearly but still labors under the burden of unnecessary verbal obscurity and unproductively convoluted sentences.

When did historians decide, apparently along with many literary critics, that difficulty of reading correlates with excellence. Why refer to a “good example” when you can refer to a “paradigmatic example”? Granted, there are some historians about these days who can claim to write clear and readable prose, yet those writers tend to be dismissed as popularizers by the academy.

This same push for obscurity seems to infect a great deal of poetry written over the past few decades, perhaps over the past century, with one of my heroes, T.S. Eliot perhaps leading the charge. Can anyone really claim to understand what Wallace Stevens is talking about most of the time?

Perhaps there is a doctoral dissertation awaiting some intrepid student who could trace the march of incomprehensible and sterile prose from modernist poetry, through fiction, and then into history.

When any art, be it music, theatre, fiction, poetry, or history, moves in a direction where only the highly initiated high priests can comprehend its mysteries, it should cease to be counted among the humanities. Morison’s humanity, on the other hand, is on excellent display in both this essay and his prodigious historical output.



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