Saturday, April 14, 2007

Some Thoughts on William Freehling

In The Road to Disunion, William Freehling employs a breathless "you are there" technique designed to increase the drama. Although a number of people have criticized his writing style as annoying, I've concluded that it creates a more fundamental problem.

Occasionally, this sort of "you are there" writing can be fun. Take, for example, his chapter on the Democratic convention held in Charleston, South Carolina in April 1860. I rather enjoyed the descriptions of the difficulties that travelers encountered just getting to Charleston and the discomforts that the conventioneers experienced after they arrived, from pickpockets to unexpectedly steamy weather that left attendants sleepless at night and sweat drenched during the day in the airless convention hall. Similarly, and on a somewhat different level, he does a good job giving you a real feel for the claustrophobic salons of Charleston that gave rise to hothouse dreams of secession.

But the negatives far outweigh the positives. First, Professor Freehling is, I regret to say, a leaden wordsmith. As a result, most of his attempts to create dramatic tension simply fall flat because the reader is too busy shaking his head in stunned disbelief at the overblown oratory and inappropriate word selection.

More seriously, I fear that Professor Freehling's tendency to present dramatic characters and incidents to illustrate points creates the suspicion, justified or not, that the casting and plotmaking is just a bit too neat. Compounding the problem, the "up close and personal" technique often makes it difficult for the reader to evaluate the lessons the author draws from and the arguments he makes based upon the dramatic incidents he recreates.

Together, these problems mean that, for me at least, the writing technique is not merely distracting; it is also substantively counterproductive, because the reader feels less confident about the conclusions drawn than he otherwise would.

This is no doubt unfair to Professor Freehling, who has lived and breathed the antebellum period and these issues most of his life. Some of his footnotes, which I hope to discuss in future posts, make clear that he has thought long and hard about the issues and considered competing views before reaching his conclusions. But I for one would have preferred more distance and a more overtly "academic" tone. I also would have liked more explicit discussion as to why he has rejected other interpretations of various events and issues.

Come to think of it, I guess this last complaint is a pet peeve I have about much historical writing. Too often, historians discussing an issue seem to pass each other in the night. I would prefer to see more acknowledgment and discussion of other views and why the author disagrees with them: "Professor A says the answer is X; Professor B says it's Y; I think they're both wrong and that the answer is Z. Here is why they disagree with each other, and here is how and why I come to the conclusion I do."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails