The baker’s nod, the knight’s blade, the king’s touch: These are three of the main and mostly medieval reasons why I read and write American history. Over the past few days, we’ve lauded new writing blueprints, parsed the definition of an academic book, and even made good sport of the whole reading selection process. So, in the last, spooling print loop of Academic Book Week, let’s rewind the too-short life of Marc Bloch for tradecraft’s sake. Continue reading
When I consider the non-early-American history books that have had the greatest impact on the way I think, two stand out in particular. One is Ross McKibbin’s The Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910-1924; the other, CLR James’s Beyond A Boundary. The former is the most obviously “academic” of the two; the opportunity to write a Junto post primarily concerned with cricket, however, means that today I’ll focus on the latter.
Both books influenced me for their creativity in approaching politics and society. McKibbin’s insight that “political action is the result of social and cultural attitudes which are not primarily political” has remained with me ever since; a useful reminder that in writing political history, we have to try and find ways of recovering political mindsets not only by looking at what political actors say, but also the many and varied ways they actually do things. James, too, calls for an approach to studying the past that looks beyond a narrow scope of inquiry, in his famous question ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ Continue reading
Is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring an academic book? Is Mary Wollestonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman? The list of twenty nominees for “the academic book that has most changed the world,” part of the UK’s Academic Book Week, is a pretty confusing collection. Plato’s Republic is a product of the academy, sure, but is George Orwell’s 1984? In the US, we’re in the middle of University Press Week, which is a much more easily-identifiable category. We should all celebrate the important role of university presses in preserving scholarly endeavour from the rapacious maw of the market. In the face of ever-deeper cuts, they deserve our vigilant support. Continue reading
This week is Academic Book Week—“A celebration of the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books.” There are events, special promotions, and competitions running in Britain between November 9 and 16, 2015. Perhaps the most provocative and interesting competition #AcBookWeek is running is a public vote on “the academic book that has most changed the world.” The entrants include Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. There are sixteen other entries, which are equally wide-ranging. Although the list makes for interesting reading, voting is closed. But do not fret, Junto readers, we are running a roundtable on a similar, yet distinct, topic. This week, several Juntoists will discuss an academic book that has shaped their work. Continue reading
This week’s roundtable began with a reference to Kurt Newman’s confession, earlier this summer, of feeling “anxiety” about a defining medium of historical scholarship: the book-length narrative. Writing for the USIH Blog in July, Kurt charged that narrative tends to conceal the historian’s assumptions and methods. More specifically, he observed, any narrative will be constructed around an ideological telos. Therefore, the book-length narrative is a dubious vehicle for a scholarly argument.
In our roundtable, we have responded to this useful provocation primarily by assuming its truth. Narrative is a powerful means of ideological initiation; its power is what makes it so valuable to historians-as-artists when they try to communicate with a reading public. On that basis, we and our commenters have been discussing the various ways narratives can exert power. Sara Georgini explored the ways Henry Adams adapted medieval narrative strategies. Jessica Parr described using stories of George Whitefield’s life as a convenient, though dangerous, structure on which to hang an argument about his public image. In the comments, similarly, J. L. Bell observed that Alan Taylor’s book William Cooper’s Town usefully subverts the very expectations its narrative structure inspires in readers.
As we wrap up today, however, I want to return to Kurt’s perceptive critique. I am not sure our response so far is adequate.
Shortly after the publication of Parlor Politics, Catherine Allgor was invited to reflect not only the political wives she’d written about, but also their husbands. Reflecting on John Quincy Adams, Allgor quipped “I like complicated men.” While tongue-in-cheek, Allgor’s comment undoubtedly reflects why historians decide to study individuals. Unpacking the layers of “complicated men” (and women) can make for a fascinating project. But historians have also had a complicated relationship with biographies. No doubt this is because, like many narrative histories, some of the earliest Early American biographies were written as exercises in nationalism, and/or with hagiographic tendencies. Moreover, when researching and writing on higher-profile individuals, many of the sources we encounter ourselves are of the narrative sort.
Once or twice upon a chapter, as you work to tell history as story, take comfort in knowing that even American sage Henry Adams sometimes had a not-great writing day. By 1878, the 40-year-old Harvard professor of medieval history was a polished scholar. Hailing from a family that wrote for the archive, he navigated easily the uncatalogued byways of an early Library of Congress. He swept up obscure state records and gathered local maps for his 9-volume History of the United States. As editor of the North American Review, Henry instructed freelancers to write “in bald style.” He sliced his private letters down to acid cultural commentary that, to the modern reader, feels meta-enough to border on code. Continue reading