Writing History

by Kieran Healy on February 24, 2004

Simon Schama protests too much. He claims that academic history is obsessed with scientific data and obsessive footnotes rather than good storytelling and calls for a return to a “golden age” of historical writing—Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle. This mostly seems like promotional fluff for his new TV series. Yet Timothy Burke and Invisible Adjunct broadly concur with Schama, though as cogs in the “juggernaut of academic history” that he condemns they add the caveat that “a broadly communicative, publically engaged rhetoric of history is dependent upon the existence of a body of much more meticulous scholarship.” That’s true—but it’s more than a caveat!

Schama’s Great Historians fused authoritative judgment, great range and vivid prose and brought the result to large audiences, helping to define the practice of history as they went. What fun it must have been. He wants those things, too. Yet although he speaks to an audience bigger than any of his heroes, Schama must know he can’t occupy that niche, because it no longer exists. The vast differentiation of the academic division of labor over the past century and a half destroyed it. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of excellent, accessible narrative history written for a mass audience by respected historians. Schama’s complaints notwithstanding, you’ll find your local bookshop stocked full of the stuff—far more, alas, than you’ll find excellent and accessible sociology, political science or economics. But, unavoidably, these histories are written on the back of all those footnoted monographs, and they cannot command the field in the way that Carlyle or Macaulay might have.

Once asked what he specialized in, the sociologist Daniel Bell replied, “Generalizations.” It’s a line worth stealing for job interviews, but it tells an important truth. Being a generalist these days is itself a kind of specialization. Like any other role in an advanced division of labor, it depends on thousands of others, most notably all those monographic specialists dug into the archives. Timothy Burke would like to see historians be trained “to write well, to seek audiences outside the academy, to stretch their powers of persuasion.” Those are worthwhile goals, but whereas the mills of academic specialization can grind exceeding small, we can’t all have our own BBC miniseries. Besides, I don’t think Schama simply wants historians to write better prose. Rather, he himself yearns to play the same role today that Macaulay or Gibbon did in their time. He covets the way they could grasp their subject whole and bring it to almost the entire reading public. Which of us scribblers wouldn’t want to do the same? But his off-lead qualifications and dilutions suggest that, deep down, he knows that’s the sort of anachronistic wishfulness that historians teach us to avoid.



Lis Riba 02.24.04 at 5:07 am

Interesting that David Starkey is supporting Schama. When I saw him speak back in November, he particularly dismissed Alison Weir as more novelist than historian and emphasized scholarship over entertainment value.

That said, as someone who has read a lot of British histories over the last several years, some are certainly more readable than others, but carelessness with the facts is a definite turn off.

I find the dismissal of footnotes annoying, though. Given modern technology, footnotes should be easy to format accurately. But too many books rely on endnotes, requiring an inordinate amount of page flipping back and forth to match text reference and endnote.


Kieran Healy 02.24.04 at 5:18 am

But too many books rely on endnotes

Publishers don’t much like footnotes, unfortunately. They think it turns off prospective readers, even though I agree that footnotes are better than endnotes.


Josh 02.24.04 at 5:26 am

What I find even worse than either footnotes or endnotes are unmarked endnotes. Blackhawk Down had them, as does Antony Beevor’s book on Stalingrad; instead of a superscripted number clearly indicating the endnote, the end matter is full of partial quotes indicating passages in the text. At least with regular endnotes you can bookmark them and easily locate the one you’re looking for.


Steve Carr 02.24.04 at 7:32 am

It’s not just footnotes that commercial publishers don’t like. They assume — rightly, I think — that lay readers don’t like superscripts of any sort in a text. So authors who want to reach a popular audience but also include their sources have to use the system that Josh decries. It is an awkward system, but if it’s done rigorously, I don’t think there’s much loss in terms of information. In fact, it’s better than the way some writers use footnotes, footnoting an entire paragraph with multiple sources without indicating which piece of information came from where.


Steve Carr 02.24.04 at 7:44 am

I should say, though, that I fully agree with Kieran’s take on Schama. At least in the U.S., there are stacks of well-done, well-crafted, and accessible works of history published each year, many of which become bestsellers. But it’s hard to imagine many of those being written if less popular, and perhaps less rhetorically adept, academics weren’t spending their days in the archives.


John Quiggin 02.24.04 at 9:51 am

I loathe endnotes. Even worse, though, are notes of any kind that use op cit -endless frustration to save maybe twenty characters of small type.


Ophelia Benson 02.24.04 at 1:46 pm

Okay here’s what I hate – footnotes with no bibliography. What are you supposed to do, write down every reference as you come to it? Memorize them all? What good is it to find a note in chapter 8 that cites just the author when you don’t remember where you saw the original reference (or even if you did see it, if [you should pardon the thought] you’re reading chapter 8 before reading 1-7) and have no idea what it was? Are you supposed to read 50 pages of notes every time you want to find a reference? What the hell is up with that system?

That’s the system in Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice, for example, and it drives me absolutely bonkers because that book is dense with very interesting-sounding (in fact just the kind of diligent if not necessarily popular or easily readable scholarship that the more accessible stuff draws on) references across a range of disciplines – but there’s no damn bibliography! Arrrgh.


GMT 02.24.04 at 2:09 pm

What this kind of soggy nostalgia usually misses (because they haven’t enough history to know in the first place) is that historians of this so-called “golden age” were aping the realistic novel of the time.
Even fiction has changed since then, so why can’t we?


John Isbell 02.24.04 at 2:55 pm

The NCMH volume is nice, though it stops in 1795, but if I’m sending someone to one overview of the French Revolution, I’ll choose Lefebvre or Schama. It’s better than non-specialists might think. I imagine his Embarrassment of Riches is similar.
For the Revolution, balance is fundamental, between blood and dreams if you like. And the big picture: Poland and America, to start with. Lots of people miss it, Schama and Lefebvre don’t.
So that’s my turf, and he did OK.


John Theibault 02.24.04 at 3:30 pm

Thank you Kieran,

I think you are right both about the self-promotional aspects of Schama’s “attack” on academic historians and the environmental conditions that have kept us from having another Macauley or Gibbon. There are, as you note, oodles of well-crafted, accessible history books in most big bookstores. Some are by the academic division of the New York Review of Books crowd; others are by the big publishing house editor division of the same crowd. Still others are by representatives of the upwardly striving — academics at second or third tier schools, freelance journalists. I’ve read enough nineteenth century narrative histories to know that the average quality of contemporary popular histories is higher. But, as with the monographic literature, it is now much harder to get noticed in the avalanche of new material. There’s only so much time to read. Changes in the professional attitude towards meticulous scholarship are unlikely to solve that problem. And, pace Burke, I think that if a historian applied for a grant to do something that really achieved what Gibbon or Carlyle achieved, s/he would get it in a heartbeat. Schama and Ferguson have written some fine history. I suspect they have gotten their fair share of grants. But they will never be Gibbon or Macauley for the reasons you have identified.


Timothy Burke 02.24.04 at 4:50 pm

John, please tell me what the grants are that support on their merits big, popular-audience works of history. The grants that get given for projects like that get given to people who have already established a reputation for doing that kind of work. The first time you try it, you’re going to have to do it by pretending you’re writing a monograph.

I agree that the ambition to be Gibbon is a non-starter, and also that there are plenty of works on the shelves that fit the description of what Schama is calling for. But I don’t agree that there is a value system within academia that broadly recognizes the filling of bookstore shelves with that kind of work as a systemic ambition that we ought to have, to be recognized with the kinds of incentive systems that we maintain. We recognize instead in an entirely entrepreneurial, idiosyncratic way, that it’s just Schama or Ferguson or Demos, etc., that’s it’s just those guys doing what they do.

I also think Kieran understates the degree to which the books on the bookstore shelves are sneered at routinely in the day-to-day work of academics, both in teaching and otherwise. I have over the years gotten a lot of low-level sniping directed at syllabi in which I give pride of place to broadly communicative works by scholars (and non-scholars like journalists); I’ve found that there’s vastly less interest among scholars in discussing works like Schama’s once they cross the line into seeking popular audiences as part of a scholarly historiography. I think I’d like to see success in the public sphere as carrying more weight backwards into how we build historiographical canons and construct our pedagogies.

I don’t accept that aiming for the public needs to mean deep-sixing erudition, caution and responsiveness to the totality of historiography–I was just criticizing Niall Ferguson on exactly that point over at Cliopatria. I’m flexible on the exact form of footnoting, but even popular work should still be citationally rich.

Overall, what I would like to see is less of an assumption that the purposes of scholars and popularizers are in some sense in permanent tension. And honestly, I do see that a lot in academia, a presumption that to move towards a communicative sensibility is to move away from scholarly rectitude and scholarly value.


Errol 02.24.04 at 9:42 pm

I loathe endnotes. Even worse, though, are notes of any kind that use op cit -endless frustration to save maybe twenty characters of small type.

What gets me too are endnotes where the chapter title isn’t given. So you have to flick back to the start of the chapter (to get the number, as it isn’t generally at the top of each page of text) before you can find the right note. It’s just unneccessary.


Anne C. 02.25.04 at 12:58 am

I put this Roy Foster quote up on my site a while ago, thought it applied here:

“Historians are often exhorted to write for ‘the general reader’, and some try to – though for most practising academics, the ‘general reader’ is a bit like the stray neighborhood cat: you feel vaguely sympathetic towards it, you know it’s someone’s responsibility to look after it, but you’re damned if you’re going to do it yourself.”


Kerim Friedman 02.25.04 at 2:23 am

I quote C.L.R. James here.


Nicholas Weininger 02.25.04 at 2:12 pm

Is Schama seriously claiming that there is a dearth, in the modern age, of historians who combine academic rigor with good storytelling? Where is his evidence for this? In the last year or two I’ve read bunches and bunches of counterexamples. Norwich’s _Short History of Byzantium_, Tuchman’s _The March of Folly_, Segev’s _One Palestine, Complete_, Hochschild’s _King Leopold’s Ghost_, to name a few. And that’s not mentioning the biographies; there is a tremendous modern renaissance of terrific, well-researched biographies– does Schama not think these count as history?


Cronaca 02.26.04 at 4:20 pm

I would second Timothy Burke’s opinions here. Though some general works have been written by trained historians, all too many are the product of authors not thoroughly familiar with the underlying literature (or too familiar — and insufficiently familiar with the primary sources!) and lacking the background to put their stories in context.

I don’t know exactly what Schama was calling for, but I certainly would welcome more openness in academia to training generalists. In many respects, it is the more difficult task: mining data in an archive, for example, may qualify in spades as original research, but is comparatively easy next to making sense of it all. The study of history needs both data miners and interpreters, and as the amount of data grows, the interpretation necessarily must take place on multiple levels if anything meaningful is to be gained.

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