Monday, January 22, 2007

Narrative vs. Analytical History

The following quote comes from Michael J.C. Taylor's H-Net review of Mark A. Graber's book, Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil (which I haven't read yet):

"What this author should consider--as should all historians whether of a scholarly or popular bent--is the ultimate value of history if but a very few ever read it. The whole point of writing of the past is to convey its importance and relevance to an audience that will digest the lessons it has to offer. If the work is to be savored by but a few scholars, the whole purpose of writing history is futile--it is akin to preaching to the faithful. An idea expressed in but a few eloquent words can prove timeless, while the most intelligent effusion of expression will be forgotten by the time it is uttered."

Although the reviewer's immediate point seems to be a narrow one (he is addressing Professor Graber's use of a writing style allegedly so opaque as to discourage all but the most intrepid specialist), the quote also raises a broader issue somewhat akin to the old question about trees falling in uninhabited forests. In that broader context, I'm not at all sure I agree with the proposition. Is "[t]he whole point of writing of the past" really "to convey its importance and relevance"? Or is it, simply, to get the facts and inferences right, popular or not?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle, in the sense that there should be room for both species of historical writing, both more broadly read narrative histories of the sort written by Doris Kearns Goodwin or James McPherson, as well as more detailed analytical monographs destined to be read only by scholars and specialists.

Popular histories will not always absorb the discoveries of specialists, but I do assume that the most significant changes will eventually come to be reflected in more general works. I've read several "popular" biographies of George Washington recently, and both went out of their way to point out a number of warts to go with the virtues. And did you know that he didn't chop down that cherry tree after all?

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