A Student of History

May 13, 2006

History as a Literary Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Maass @ 12:17 am

The New Yorker, not one of my favorite magazines to be sure, has shown us that, like a stopped clock that's right twice a day, even it can have some columns worth reading. The April 24th edition includes an essay by Harvard historian Jill Lepore (The Name of War) on Samuel Eliot Morison, most known for his work on Columbus (Admiral of the Ocean Sea) and a multi-volume history of the U.S. Navy in WWII. What Lepore likes about SEM is his enthusiasm for fine writing, stated in a pamphlet of his called “History as a Literary Art: An Appeal to Young Historians,” printed in 1946. In it, Morison complained that “American historians, in their eagerness to present facts and their laudable concern to tell the truth, have neglected the literary aspects of their craft. They have forgotten that there is an art of writing history.” Lepore goes on at length about the traditions of writing history (not doing history as so many younger graduate students say these days.) by William Bradford, et. al. in what is a nice read. Click here to go to the article.

Lepore makes an interesting observation too:

Because he wrote more for the public than for his fellow-historians, Morison has few academic disciples today, and, if the chain reaction of dullness continues unbroken, Morison is as much to blame as anybody. But it could be argued that there has been a sea change: there now is a School of Morison, a school of history writers who are not professors, not all of whom care as much as Morison did about context and argument and, above all, evidence.

Who could we lump into this group of authors who don't care too much about evidence? 

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