From the Archives: Why Can’t Historians Write?

The Writing of History - an AHA report from 1926A review in the Washington Post last Sunday reiterated the now tired claim that postmodernism in its various guises is responsible for poor writing in the discipline. While the constellation of methods gathered under that label rarely promote lucid prose, the latest addition to our online archives—a 1926 report about The Writing of History—shows the profession mulling over many of the same issues 80 years ago.

Although nominally a committee report, the publication consists of four essays addressing different aspects of the issue: A survey of “The Historian’s Work” by Jean Jules Jusserand (former ambassador from France and AHA President), an assessment of “The Influence of Graduate Instruction on Historical Writing” by Wilbur C. Abbott (Harvard University), a survey of “The Craftsmanship of the Historian” by Charles W. Colby (McGill University), and a concluding essay on “The Present State of History-Writing” by John Spencer Bassett (Smith College and AHA Secretary). The report marks a crisis in discipline; the first in a series of AHA studies (on the “productivity” of history PhD’s and Historical Scholarship in America) fretting about the professional practice of history.

Taken together, the four essays in the Writing of History report offer complaints about bad writing in the profession that seem all too familiar, but they do so in terms that seem quite distant. Instead of the current bugaboo of postmodernism, the authors blame the scientific pretensions of their day for elevating “Facts” over a more “humanized” form of writing. And where errant politics is blamed, they cite the excesses of commercialism and the nationalistic sentiments marked by First World War. Meanwhile, the language and range of examples they use display (often to excess) the classical training of that generation. Their prose is peppered with Greek, Latin, French, and German authors and phrases, and their essays cite historians long dead (ancient Greek historians, Renaissance chroniclers, and pre-professional historians) rather than their contemporaries.

Doctoral programs are singled out for a considerable portion of the blame, though the nature of their failings differs from essay to essay. Jusserand maintains that the schools are teaching students to fear that “if history is interesting it can not be scientific.” Abbott blames the mass of secondary literature that graduate students are forced to skim; thereby preventing reading for style. And Bassett blames poor undergraduate preparation of students and the professional burdens of teaching for encouraging “dull and dreary habits of amassing information without grace of form and without charm of expression.”

Even though they clearly aspire to remedy the problems they see in the discipline, their essays all seem shadowed by a weary pessimism. There is a clear sense that historical training and methods would continue to supersede style in the profession—a pessimistic view seemingly borne out by generations of subsequent practice. Hopefully the long view that these essays provide will offer a useful corrective to those who want to attribute the discipline’s audience problems on any particular ideas or practices. Then as now, assigning blame is easy, finding a solution is much more difficult.

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  1. Tim Lacy

    Dear Robert,

    Fantastic post and addition to the online archives! Art versus science, theory versus narrative—-what’s the next false binary the profession will swing into? Blog writing versus academic prose?

    The underlying binary seems to be this: writing for one’s colleagues (which is seldom acknowledged to involve mere matters of taste) versus writing for the public (which is always acknowledged to involve matters of taste). Your post at least shows that writing for one’s colleagues involves a style of the times.

    – TL

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