When Was Professional History Not Boring?

The current unease about history’s declining fortunes echo an anxiety that has afflicted the profession for nearly a century. This anxiety seems perennially familiar: overly specialized monographs filled with turgid prose are driving away readers, graduate education is doing little to improve the situation, and, consequently, history no longer commands the respect it once did. The present situation might be more precarious, but the general themes of this crisis have been rehearsed before.

The Writing of History (1926) raises familiar concerns.

In 1920 the AHA formed a committee to learn what could be done to “awaken young students and historians to a realization of the part good expression must play in enabling history to maintain a place in the world of letters.” History’s readership was already in decline and with that decline in readership so too was history’s standing as a respectable subject. Six years later the committee produced its report, Writing of History (New York, 1926). The report diagnoses the problem, tracing the cause back to undergraduate and graduate education that has beaten any appreciation of style out of students and future historians.

By 1926 John Spencer Bassett looked back longingly to a former era when

historians like Bancroft and Prescott stood side by side with the great poets at the top of the world of letters. From the men of their day they received esteem, public honors, and wealth. They lived like proconsuls over provinces of literary expression. To-day the historian’s influence has waned. He is no longer to be compared with the lordly proconsul, but rather to the hard-working centurion, whose labors held together the military units on which rested the Roman authority in the province.

We can hardly imagine a world in which historians stood anywhere near “the top of the world of letters” and “received esteem, public honors, and wealth.” If Bassett lamented the historians fall from proconsul to centurion, imagine his horror knowing that historians today rarely rise even to the level of optio. However much Bassett feared civilization had decayed, he could still assume readers would know the terms proconsul and centurion. Today even writing for historians Bassett would be wise to link proconsul, centurion, and optio to their wikipedia pages.

Theodor Mommsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902.

Bassett’s utopian past was best represented by the great German historian Theodor Mommsen. Stories of Mommsen’s fame are not hard to find. When Mark Twain visited Berlin in 1892 he was amazed by the reverence shown to Mommsen. One evening at a banquet in honor of two leading scientists, Hermann von Helmholz and Rudolf Virchow, the crowds of students attending rose to celebrate Mommsen’s entrance into the banquet hall. Mommsen’s lectures drew enormous audiences that overflowed the auditoriums and spilled out into the streets. These people turned out to hear lectures on the Roman Republic, on coinage, on inscriptions, on constitutional and criminal law. Mommsen wasn’t just a great historian; he was also a literary giant and incredible stylist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902. Mommsen was a giant amongst giants in an era that for whatever reason valued history more than the subsequent period. The 19th century was, as Anthony Grafton put it, the age of Clio.

By contrast, the 20th and 21st centuries have never been particularly fond of Clio. While there are undoubtedly many reasons for history’s declining fortunes, a seemingly pathological lack of literary style and an obsession with monographs are commonly identified as the root of history’s woes. Twenty years after the AHA report Samuel Eliot Morison once again blamed the educational system for destroying any sense of style. In History as a Literary Art (1946) he wrote:

There has been a sort of chain reaction of dullness. Professors who have risen to positions of eminence by writing dull, solid, valuable monographs that nobody reads outside the profession, teach graduate students to write dull, solid, valuable monographs like theirs; the road to academic security is that of writing dull, solid, valuable monographs. And so the young men who have a gift for good writing either leave the historical field for something more exciting, or write more dull, solid, valuable monographs.

Like Bassett before him, Morison singled out William Prescott and George Bancroft as exemplary stylists and lamented “the introduction of pseudoscientific and psychological jargon” that had come to infect historical writing.

Sixty years later, postmodernism had replaced pseudoscientific and psychological jargon as the particular symptoms, but the diagnosis remained the same: impenetrable and esoteric prose was driving away readers and ensuring academic history’s marginalization. Accessible, interesting history is written by non-academic historians, often disparaged as journalists or merely writers. Style—vocabulary, language as well as form—is again implicated in William Cronon’s recent “Professional Boredom.” While he identifies other contributing factors, he concludes by drawing attention to style:

How do we avoid professional boredom? … By remembering that no matter what else we do, we are all teachers whose foremost responsibility is to share what we know in ways people can understand—and, more basic still, in ways that people will find interesting, even intriguing. By communicating as clearly and engagingly as we can. By telling good stories.

Are we asking too much of style? Do we expect it to bear more responsibility for history’s success or failure than it possibly can? Does our focus on style perhaps obscure larger, societal shifts away from traditional, academic history?

3 replies on “When Was Professional History Not Boring?”

Really, great points here.

I think Cronon echoes many of them in his latest piece in Perspectives:

One of the most interesting points you make above (and Cronon makes in his piece) has to do with the monograph as the gold standard when it comes to communicating history. Monographs are usually very narrow and often employ a style most people don’t want to read. Monographs have a limited circulation and I wonder if fewer are being published today as a result of shifting market demographics. Articles can engage a somewhat bigger audience and are probably a bit more cost effective to produce but how many people have access outside colleges and universities?

I was wondering if you had thoughts on other modes of communicating historical information? Obviously, monographs are important…we need them…but do we need to start thinking more broadly and valuing other modes of communication?

I went to the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference recently and one of the pieces of history I encountered (and can’t stop talking about) was Jessica van Horssen’s dissertation that became a graphic novel: it is just one example of someone taking an intellectual leap and communicating is a different way.

I did some reflecting on Cronon’s latest piece: and wonder if, as he says, we need to value synthetic works that attack big questions? And maybe we also need to embrace new modes of communication more fully.

Katherine O’Flaherty