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In Search of History
History began to exert its fascination upon me when I was about six, through the medium of the Twins series by Lucy Fitch Perkins. I became absorbed in the fortunes of the Dutch Twins; the Twins of the American Revolution, who daringly painted the name Modeerf, or “freedom” spelled backward, on their row boat; and especially the Belgian Twins, who suffered under the German occupation of Brussels in 1914.
After the Twins, I went through a G. A. Henty period and bled with Wolfe in Canada. Then came a prolonged Dumas period, during which I became so intimate with the Valois kings, queens, royal mistresses, and various Ducs de Guise that when we visited the French châteaux I was able to point out to my family just who had stabbed whom in which room. Conan Doyle’s The White Company and, above all, Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs were the definitive influence. As the noble Wallace, in tartan and velvet tarn, I went to my first masquerade party, stalking in silent tragedy among the twelve-year-old Florence Nightingales and Juliets. In the book the treachery of the Countess of Mar, who betrayed Wallace, carried a footnote that left its mark on me. “The crimes of this wicked woman,” it said darkly, “are verified by history.”
By the time I reached Radcliffe, I had no difficulty in choosing a field of concentration, although it turned out to be History and Lit rather than pure history. I experienced at college no moment of revelation that determined me to write historical narrative. When that precise moment occurred I cannot say; it just developed and there was a considerable time lag. What Radcliffe did give me, however, was an impetus (not to mention an education, but I suppose that goes without saying). Part of the impetus came from great courses and great professors. Of the three to which I owe most, two, curiously enough, were in literature rather than history. They were Irving Babbitt’s Comp Lit II and John Livingston Lowes’s English 72, which included his spectacular tour de force on the origins of “The Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” He waved at Wordsworth, bowed briefly to Keats and Shelley, and really let himself go through twelve weeks of lectures, tracing the sources of Coleridge’s imagery, and spending at least a week on the fatal apparition of the person from Porlock. What kept us, at least me, on the edge of my seat throughout this exploit was Lowes’s enthusiasm for his subject.
This quality was the essence, too, of Professor C. H. McIlwain’s Constitutional History of England, which came up as far as Magna Carta. It did not matter to McIlwain, a renowned scholar and historian, that only four of us were taking his course, or that he had already given it at Harvard and had to come over to repeat it to us (yes, that was the quaint custom of the time). It did not matter because McIlwain was conducting a passionate love affair with the laws of the Angles and the articles of the Charter, especially, as I remember, Article 39. Like any person in love, he wanted to let everyone know how beautiful was the object of his affections. He had white hair and pink cheeks and the brightest blue eyes I ever saw, and though I cannot remember a word of Article 39, I do remember how his blue eyes blazed as he discussed it and how I sat on the edge of my seat then too, and how, to show my appreciation, I would have given anything to write a brilliant exam paper, only to find that half the exam questions were in Anglo-Saxon, about which he had neglected to forewarn us. That did not matter either, because he gave all four of us A’s anyway, perhaps out of gratitude for our affording him another opportunity to talk about his beloved Charter.
Professor Babbitt, on the other hand, being a classicist and anti-romantic, frowned on enthusiasm. But his contempt for zeal was so zealous, so vigorous and learned, pouring out in a great organ fugue of erudition, that it amounted to enthusiasm in the end and held not only me, but all his listeners, rapt.
Although I did not know it or formulate it consciously at the time, it is this quality of being in love with your subject that is indispensable for writing good history—or good anything, for that matter. A few months ago when giving a talk at another college, I was invited to meet the faculty and other guests at dinner. One young member of the History Department who said he envied my subject in The Guns of August confessed to being bogged down and brought to a dead stop halfway through his doctoral thesis. It dealt, he told me, with an early missionary in the Congo who had never been “done” before. I asked what was the difficulty. With a dreary wave of his cocktail he said, “I just don’t like him.” I felt really distressed and depressed—both for him and for the conditions of scholarship. I do not know how many of you are going, or will go, to graduate school, but when you come to write that thesis on, let us say, “The Underwater Imagery Derived from the Battle of Lepanto in the Later Poetic Dramas of Lope de Vega,” I hope it will be because you care passionately about this imagery rather than because your department has suggested it as an original subject.
In the process of doing my own thesis—not for a Ph.D., because I never took a graduate degree, but just my undergraduate honors thesis—the single most formative experience in my career took place. It was not a tutor or a teacher or a fellow student or a great book or the shining example of some famous visiting lecturer—like Sir Charles Webster, for instance, brilliant as he was. It was the stacks at Widener. They were my Archimedes’ bathtub, my burning bush, my dish of mold where I found my personal penicillin. I was allowed to have as my own one of those little cubicles with a table under a window, queerly called, as I have since learned, carrels, a word I never knew when I sat in one. Mine was deep in among the 942s (British History, that is) and I could roam at liberty through the rich stacks, taking whatever I wanted. The experience was marvelous, a word I use in its exact sense meaning full of marvels. The happiest days of my intellectual life, until I began writing history again some fifteen years later, were spent in the stacks at Widener. My daughter Lucy, class of ’61, once said to me that she could not enter the labyrinth of Widener’s stacks without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle. I too was never altogether sure I could find the way out, but I was blissful as a cow put to graze in a field of fresh clover and would not have cared if I had been locked in for the night.
Once I stayed so late that I came out after dark, long after the dinner hour at the dorm, and found to my horror that I had only a nickel in my purse. The weather was freezing and I was very hungry. I could not decide whether to spend the nickel on a chocolate bar and walk home in the cold or take the Mass Avenue trolley and go home hungry. This story ends like “The Lady or the Tiger,” because although I remember the agony of having to choose, I cannot remember how it came out.
My thesis, the fruit of those hours in the stacks, was my first sustained attempt at writing history. It was called “The Moral Justification for the British Empire,” an unattractive title and, besides, inaccurate, because what I meant was the moral justifying of empire by the imperialists. It was for me a wonderful and terrible experience. Wonderful because finding the material, and following where it led, was constantly exciting and because I was fascinated by the subject, which I had thought up for myself—much to the disapproval of my tutor, who was in English Lit, not History, and interested only in Walter Pater—or was it Walter Savage Landor? Anyway, it was not the British Empire, and since our meetings were consequently rather painfully uncommunicative, I think he was relieved when I took to skipping them.
The experience was terrible because I could not make the piece sound, or rather read, the way I wanted it to. The writing fell so far short of the ideas. The characters, who were so vivid inside my head, seemed so stilted when I got them on paper. I finished it, dissatisfied. So was the department: “Style undistinguished,” it noted. A few years ago, when I unearthed the thesis to look up a reference, that impression was confirmed. It reminded me of The Importance of Being Earnest, when Cecily says that the letters she wrote to herself from her imaginary fiancé when she broke off their imaginary engagement were so beautiful and so badly spelled she could not reread them without crying. I felt the same way about my thesis: so beautiful—in intent—and so badly written. Enthusiasm had not been enough; one must also know how to use the language.
One learns to write, I have since discovered, in the practice thereof. After seven years’ apprenticeship in journalism I discovered that an essential element for good writing is a good ear. One must listen to the sound of one’s own prose. This, I think, is one of the failings of much American writing. Too many writers do not listen to the sound of their own words. For example, listen to this sentence from the organ of my own discipline, the American Historical Review: “His presentation is not vitiated historically by efforts at expository simplicity.” In one short sentence five long Latin words of four or five syllables each. One has to read it three times over and take time out to think, before one can even make out what it means.
In my opinion, short words are always preferable to long ones; the fewer syllables the better, and monosyllables, beautiful and pure like “bread” and “sun” and “grass,” are the best of all. Emerson, using almost entirely one-syllable words, wrote what I believe are among the finest lines in English:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Out of twenty-eight words, twenty-four are monosyllables. It is English at its purest, though hardly characteristic of its author.
Or take this:
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Imagine how it must feel to have composed those lines! Though coming from a writer satisfied with the easy rhythms of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” they represent, I fear, a fluke. To quote poetry, you will say, is not a fair comparison. True, but what a lesson those stanzas are in the sound of words! What superb use of that magnificent instrument that lies at the command of all of us—the English language. Quite by chance both practitioners in these samples happen to be Americans, and both, curiously enough, writing about history.
To write history so as to enthrall the reader and make the subject as captivating and exciting to him as it is to me has been my goal since that initial failure with my thesis. A prerequisite, as I have said, is to be enthralled one’s self and to feel a compulsion to communicate the magic. Communicate to whom? We arrive now at the reader, a person whom I keep constantly in mind. Catherine Drinker Bowen has said that she writes her books with a sign pinned up over her desk asking, “Will the reader turn the page?”
The writer of history, I believe, has a number of duties vis-à-vis the reader, if he wants to keep him reading. The first is to distill. He must do the preliminary work for the reader, assemble the information, make sense of it, select the essential, discard the irrelevant—above all, discard the irrelevant—and put the rest together so that it forms a developing dramatic narrative. Narrative, it has been said, is the lifeblood of history. To offer a mass of undigested facts, of names not identified and places not located, is of no use to the reader and is simple laziness on the part of the author, or pedantry to show how much he has read. To discard the unnecessary requires courage and also extra work, as exemplified by Pascal’s effort to explain an idea to a friend in a letter which rambled on for pages and ended, “I am sorry to have wearied you with so long a letter but I did not have time to write you a short one.” The historian is continually being beguiled down fascinating byways and sidetracks. But the art of writing—the test of the artist—is to resist the beguilement and cleave to the subject.
Should the historian be an artist? Certainly a conscious art should be part of his equipment. Macaulay describes him as half poet, half philosopher. I do not aspire to either of these heights. I think of myself as a storyteller, a narrator, who deals in true stories, not fiction. The distinction is not one of relative values; it is simply that history interests me more than fiction. I agree with Leopold von Ranke, the great nineteenth-century German historian, who said that when he compared the portrait of Louis XI in Scott’s Quentin Durward with the portrait of the same king in the memoirs of Philippe de Comines, Louis’ minister, he found “the truth more interesting and beautiful than the romance.”
It was Ranke, too, who set the historian’s task: to find out wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, what really happened, or, literally, how it really was. His goal is one that will remain forever just beyond our grasp for reasons I explained in a “Note on Sources” in The Guns of August (a paragraph that no one ever reads but I think is the best thing in the book). Summarized, the reasons are that we who write about the past were not there. We can never be certain that we have recaptured it as it really was. But the least we can do is to stay within the evidence.
I do not invent anything, even the weather. One of my readers told me he particularly liked a passage in The Guns which tells how the British Army landed in France and how on that afternoon there was a sound of summer thunder in the air and the sun went down in a blood-red glow. He thought it an artistic touch of doom, but the fact is it was true.
From the Trade Paperback edition.