A quick post: Watch a flash video of my recent talk at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia:
Monday, September 28, 2009
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
I'll be on the road for the next ten days or so, giving talks on the East Coast. (Or "back East," as they say here in California.) I'll be talking about my most recent book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Don't expect any posts on this blog while I'm away, but you might be able to catch me in person. Here's my schedule:
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The English language (my favorite language) is full of axioms about the study of history. They tend to be about how important an understanding of the past is for knowing the future: "Past is prologue," or "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."
Professional historians know better—except when one gets a chance to personally spout off about current, and future, events. Take a look at the History News Network, for example. It's mostly a set of articles and blogs about what's in the current headlines.
Do I blame historian pundits? Hardly. This very blog started out as my own take on current events, until I figured the world had enough pundits. Do I think they're always off base? Not at all. Give me a good op-ed by Gary Wills anyday. But I'm not sure I really see a consistent pattern, showing that being a professional historian improves one's punditry. It certainly doesn't improve one's knowledge of the future.
History is a funny thing, straddling the humanities and the social sciences. But the word "science" usually refers to a discipline that can locate reproducible outcomes, and thus can create a predictive model. History relies upon the collection and evaluation of evidence, but it's pretty useless when it comes to predictions of anything. I couldn't even predict how long it would take to write my most recent book. I signed a contract that called for delivery in two years. Seven years later, the book finally appeared in print.
But when it comes to the present, you would expect a historian to have a better idea of what's going on. And that's sometimes true. Part of the point of studying the past is to see how the world we live in came into existence. All reality is a palimpsest, a page that is written on over again and again. No, even that metaphor doesn't quite work, because it doesn't show how the present grows out of the past. It's more like a landscape, formed by sediment that piles up on what came before, sometimes torn up by volcanic eruptions or warped by erosion, but always shaped by the past.
But here's the catch: The study of the present is a full-time job in its own right. It has its own disciplines: political science, sociology, anthropology, journalism, and the like. Scholars in these fields are better informed if they use the products of history: biographies (my favorite), monographs, journal articles, narrative histories. But product and the producer are different. The historian, as a person, is not an expert on the present. The historian must study the past in its own terms, without infiltrating concerns for the present into the work, and without trying to teach lessons about the present.
I know it is often said that the present influences the study of the past. That's OK, if it influences the questions we ask, the concerns and interests that lead us to study this or that. For example, the United States is currently engaged in two wars; that might spark an interest in a historian in the experience of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. It's not OK if someone decides to write a history of the Peloponnesian War as a parable of the Iraq War. History must be examined in its own terms; anything else is intellectually dishonest.
The present is often why we are interested in the past, but presentism has no place in the study of the past. That's as true for biographers as it is for historians proper. Past may well be prologue, but it's best not to worry about the rest of the book when writing it.
Friday, September 4, 2009
I've been swamped recently, so my posting has trailed off a bit. Not that anyone has noticed; my comments about writing biography are not exactly hot news.
Over at my main website, I recently commented on a mistaken impression that my books can leave with the reader. This false impression is that I don't provide much personal detail about my subjects, that I don't delve into their private lives. In fact, both of my biographies have provided more personal information than any previous book on the same subjects. In The First Tycoon, there's an awful lot of it—especially considering that Cornelius Vanderbilt left no diary or collection of personal papers.
The problem, rather, is that the personal details share space with the public acts of my subjects, and, in particular, a great deal of information about the historical context. It's the relative proportion, not the absolute amount, that makes it seem like I slight the personal side of life.
For the purposes of this blog, though, it's important to note that not all biographies need to be written this way. It sounds arrogant, I suppose, for me to give permission for writers to not be like me, but I'm trying to make a point. A biography need only be rewarding. Period. I like to write the kind of book I like to read, one that richly informs as well as entertains. But there are other writers who prefer to focus more purely on the story telling. Or perhaps they have subjects that are so well-known that the strictly personal story is interesting enough, without any context. Or perhaps the subject lived so recently that providing a lot of context seems unnecessary. I, on the other hand, have been writing about nineteenth-century Americans. Their world is different enough from ours, I think, that a rich historical discussion is necessary to understand them. But that's not true for everyone.
In this blog, I naturally focus on how I do things, and why. But I just wish to say that I have no illusions that my approach is the only one—nor even the best one, certainly not in all cases.