Roundtable: Academic Book Week—How Should We Write History?

abw_logo_finalThis 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.[1] 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.

To kick the roundtable off, I would like to introduce H. T. (Harry) Dickinson’s British Radicalism and the French Revolution 1789–1815.[2] Dickinson, an Emeritus Professor of British history at the University of Edinburgh, is a specialist in Britain’s long eighteenth century. He has published numerous articles and books throughout his long career, many of which have touched upon similar topics and themes. Although British Radicalism is one of his shorter monographs, it is one of his most effective.[3]

51ZcMBjJZsL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_Dickinson squeezes a preface, four chapters, references and suggestions for further reading, and an index into eighty-eight pages. He deals mainly with the large corpus of writings by the likes of J. R. Dinwiddy, Marianne Elliot, Roger Wells, Clive Emsley, J. C. D. Clark, and others. Primary sources are not included in the section “References and Further Reading,” giving the reader a clear indication of what s/he should expect—this book will not offer a reevaluation of the topic; rather, it acts a useful starting point for anyone who is interested in Britain between the 1780s and early 1800s. Dickinson’s chronologically structured chapters provide succinct, incisive introductions to radicalism, loyalism, print culture, and government politics, among many other topics. He manages to cover, albeit briefly, the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland, as well—something which is often overlooked.

There are other benefits to this book. Because it is so short, and widely available, it is a good teaching tool. Students can make their way through it in under a week. More important, with its incisive evaluation of the then-available historiography, British Radicalism provides a nice blueprint for students trying to make their way through the long eighteenth century, something which can appear daunting at first glance. Further, he does this within the boundaries of scholarly propriety.

This book is useful in other settings, too. In classes I have taught, in Britain and in the U.S., I have used it on multiple occasions, in part because of its brevity and its succinct evaluation of historiography. But another, arguably more important, reason I assign it relates to its style and composition. British Radicalism, like all of Dickinson’s work, is wonderfully written. He uses straightforward language. He doesn’t waste words. This is a feature of all of Dickinson’s work. And it is something he instills in his students.

One of my advisors at the University of Stirling, Emma Macleod, had Dickinson as her dissertation supervisor when she was an undergraduate and postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. During one of my many conversations with Emma, she recalled that, while she was an undergraduate, Dickinson her a copy of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” In this essay, Orwell champions clarity and concision in writing. Dickinson’s intentions in giving Emma a copy of Orwell’s essay were clear—straightforward writing was effective. And as is shown in Emma’s wonderful British Visions of America, 1775–1820, Harry was right.

In Emma's most recent book, her writing is clear, concise, and effective.

In Emma’s most recent book, her writing is clear, concise, and effective.

Emma tried to instill that quality into my writing while I worked under her supervision. As I progressed through graduate school, from the early lit reviews to handing in the dissertation to Stirling’s library, my writing (slowly) improved. By 2014 my writing was sharper than it was in 2010; it was crisper and more effective, thanks, in part, to Emma’s advice. (My other supervisor, Colin Nicolson, editor of The Papers of Francis Bernard, was also a significant influence upon my writing style. Colin, like Emma and Harry, emphasized concision.)

For me, then, Dickinson’s British Radicalism and the French Revolution isn’t just a book on life in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain. It is an example of the type of history I want to write.

Over the next few days, other Juntoists will offer their comments on a different book. But, Junto readers, we want your thoughts: what book, or historian, has influenced your work or understanding of the practice of history? What do you think of the #AcBookWeek list? Who do you think is missing?

________________

[1] For the complete list, see http://acbookweek.com/20abcworld/.

[2] Blackwell Publishing, 1985.

[3] Some of Dickinson’s publications are H. T. Dickinson, Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1977); H. T. Dickinson, The Politics of the People in Eighteenth-Century Britain (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995); H. T Dickinson, ed., Britain and the American Revolution (London: Longman, 1998); H. T. Dickinson, “Why Did the American Revolution Not Spread to Ireland?,” Valahian Journal of Historical Studies, no. 18/19 (2012/2013): 155–80.

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7 comments on “Roundtable: Academic Book Week—How Should We Write History?

  1. Alec Rogers says:

    Hi Chris, really interesting post!

    Of course, the Oxford Press’s series of the History of the United States has produced such volumes as Empire of Liberty, What Hath God Wrought and Battle Cry of Freedom to name my favorites from this series.

    Yale Press publishes some of my more favorite recent books, such as Andrew O’Shaugnessy’s The Men Who Lost America and Benjamin Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots.

    The Nebraska Press has a great niche in baseball history (Branch Rickey, Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman being one great example).

    Another outstanding Civil War history title from UVA Press is Gallagher’s The Union Cause.

    My final example of the book that has probably most shaped my understanding of the Revolution is Jack Greene’s The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution.

    Special mention goes to two volumes published by Univ Press of Kansas: Alan’s Gibson’s Interpreting the Founding and his Understanding the Founding.

    • Thanks for the comment, Alec, and for the book suggestions.

      I thought about writing on James McPherson’s Battle Cry. When I was a third-year undergraduate, I went on a tour of some Civil War sites. I went to Antietam, Gettysburg, and Harper’s Ferry. Towards the end of my trip, I went to Princeton to hear McPherson speak. He was captivating. Sat in a chair, he spoke without notes, flawlessly, for over an hour. He took questions after, too. And, of course, lots of people had Battle Cry ready for his signature. For me, it is one of those books that you just have to read. And I think thousands of people have. I’m pretty sure it’s been translated into a wide range of languages, including Czech!

      And I agree with JPG’s Constitutional Origins. It’s a great book, in part because of its concision and its brevity. I’ve used that book on multiple occasions, too, in favor of JPR’s multi-volume series. From my experience, students found that too dense.

      I just finished rereading O’Shaughnessy’s book, too. It was a much better read second time round, though I do wish that he looked at Gage, Haldimand, and Carleton. A look at Charles James Fox and the Marquess of Rockingham would have been a great addition, too. But that would have made the book very, very long.

  2. J Stuart says:

    Annette Gordon-Reed’s _Hemingses of Monticello_

    Catherine Brekus’ _Sarah Osborne’s World_

    Matthew Frye Jacobson’s _Whiteness of a Different Color_

    All changed the ways that I think about history and the way I write history.

  3. As a historian of the American War of Independence, Lender and Martin’s A Respectable Army has always been a succinct, readable account of the war that incorporates sophisticated interpretations and clears away much of the mythology that tends to cloud popular works on the conflict.

    Michael McConnel’s The Politics of War on wartime Virginia has always impressed me for its sheer scope and sophistication.

    Wayne Bodle’s work on Valley Forge also comes to mind.

  4. […] presses. Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, rightly mentioned by one of our commenters on Chris’s post, was published by W.W. Norton and Co. Jill Lepore’s intellectually […]

  5. danallosso says:

    I think the most important history book I’ve ever read is Morton Horwitz’s Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860. It’s definitely academic. So academic you can hardly get academics to read it! But important.

  6. […] 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 […]

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