Gordon S. Wood: Defending the academicians

Historians in the News

[Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. His most recent book is Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.]

The writing of academic history seems to be in crisis. Historical monographs -- scholarly works on highly specific subjects -- pour from the university presses (at least 1,200 or so a year) and yet have very few readers. Sometimes, sales of academic history books number only in the hundreds; if it weren't for library purchases, their sales might be measured in the dozens. Most people, it seems, are not interested in reading history, at least not the history written by academic historians. Although some blame this situation on the poor teaching of history in the schools, most critics seem to think that the problem lies with the academic historians themselves. They don't know how to write history, at least the kind of history that people want to read. After all, David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Jon Meacham and other popular historians sell hundreds of thousands of books. If they can do it, why can't the academic historians write better, more readable, more accessible history?

Historians who sell lots of books have always thought that it was their ability to write well that made them popular. Samuel Eliot Morison, a historian who was that rare bird, an academic who was a bestseller during the middle decades of the 20th century, certainly believed that. Academic historians, he said, "have forgotten that there is an art of writing history." Instead of scintillating stories that move, they write "dull, solid, valuable monographs that nobody reads outside the profession." Barbara Tuchman, who was America's most popular historian in the 1960s and 1970s, likewise believed that academic historians did not know how to write. The reason professors of history have so few readers, she said, is that they have had too many captive audiences -- first with the dissertation supervisors, then with their students in lecture halls. They really do not know how "to capture and hold the interests of an audience." McCullough agrees, though he is too polite to put it so bluntly. History is in trouble, he suggests, because most academic historians have forgotten how to tell a story. "That's what history is," he says, "a story."

Alas, if it were only that simple. 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.
Read entire article at The Washington Post

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