Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Popular History

I'm a geek, so it's kind of surprising to me that I don't seek out works of popular history more often. I'd love to know everything about the Civil War, or the lives of notable people, or daily life in ancient Rome. But I rarely seek out books on these subjects.

I think the answer to this mystery can be provided in an anecdote. A few years back, I was asked by my college alumni magazine to review a new book by a well-reputed historian, and professor at the college. Like a good reviewer, I first went and read the books that made him famous, and then read the new one. They were all good, but the new one represented a step back, I thought. As a piece of historical research, it was superb. The guy had some major chops in his field, and I said so in the review. But he made a mistake--he framed most of the book as a "nonfiction novel," in order to make it more dramatically satisfying, and spent a lot of page time "getting into the heads" of his subjects.

In this endeavor, the famous historian failed, at least in my view. He was a very poor novelist, cribbing his moves from half-baked popular fiction; and his generally tight, engaging writing style collapsed into purple effusion. He was out of his element--and I said that in my review too.

Whoops. I emailed the thing to the editor, and never heard from him again. The piece ran, and I got paid, but it was clear I had been scrubbed off the reviewer list. The famous historian, I belatedly realized, was not to be insulted.

Still, I believe my complaints were legitimate. When a book says NONFICTION on the spine, that's what I want to read. Dramatization is one thing, but dramatic reconstruction is hooey. Here's an example: I'm reading a really good book right now, James Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer. (Yeah, that subtitle is gramatically wonky..."chase for"?...maybe "hunt for" or "chase of," but...never mind.) Swanson is similar to my reviewee in that his book is obsessively researched, and dramatized in a lively fashion. He's better at the dramatization than the other guy, but you still get bits like this:

Whoever told Booth about the president's theater party had unknowingly activated in his mind an imaginary clock that, even as he sat on the front step of Ford's, chuckling aloud as he read his letter, began ticking down, minute by minute.

First of all, the weary clock metaphor does not contribute to the drama of the inevitable event. But "chuckling aloud"? I don't think so. You can't do that without a footnote. Swanson says, in the notes,

I do not cite sources for each and every fact in the book...Manhunt is meant to be not an encyclopedia of the assassination, but a dramatic account...that unfolds, as much as possible, in real time.

Hmm. If he's got a citation in his files for that chuckle, I'll eat my tricorn.

I wish more popular historians would allow the drama of their subjects to speak for itself. We don't need the chuckling Booth--it's easy enough to imagine what he must have been thinking. In fact, Swanson could have said exactly that. "We can only imagine what Booth must have been thinking, as he paused on the steps of the theater, mere hours from the president's death." You know--interpolation. The historian's guiding hand, suggesting things for us to consider, rather than making up things to hand to us, fully formed.

Still, this is a really good book, and I highly recommend it. I wish more historical dramatizations were as restrained as this one usually is.

9 comments:

Mark Hoobler said...

Are you at liberty to say who the first historian you talk about was? I vaguely remember reading a work of history structed as a novel and feeling it was a strange structure for the historian. If you cant say, no big deal.

jrlennon said...

Eh, I'll keep it to myself if that's OK...just trying to be respectful.

writer said...

What's an example of a nonfiction book -- one with a narrative -- that you enjoy that doesn't employ dramatiation? I'm a fiction writer, but I'm getting ready to write my first book-length "nonfiction narrative," so I'm searching out titles to read. (I loved MANHUNT by the way, but, like you, I kept wondering, "How the hell would he know that?" Or, "Can you DO that in nonfiction? Doesn't all of it have to be cited?") Thanks.

jrlennon said...

Well, the answer to those questions is apparently yes, you CAN do that, and nobody will complain but obscure, pedantic bloggers.

But I think my favorite book of history ever must be Evan S. Connell's "Son Of The Morning Star," a book about Custer. He does a lot of speculating, but he refers to it as speculation in the text. He's a novelist--a real one!--so he's very good at creating a voice that is appropriate for his approach. I also very much like Ian Frazier's "Great Plains," and Connell's two books of historical essays, "The White Lantern" and "The Long Desire."

jrlennon said...

BTW, all FOUR of those books were recommended to my by our occasional co-blogger Ed Skoog.

AC said...

I really noticed the difference between those two styles when I read two biographies of the Peabody sisters back to back. Megan Marshall's 2005 biography does the interpolation thing. Louise Hall Tharp, writing in 1950, wrote a history that's so close to being a novel you can hardly tell the difference (obviously the library volunteers couldn't because I bought it at their annual "fiction only" sale). I had thought, based on this example, that the standards for writing history must have been looser a couple of generations ago. But I guess that was wishful thinking.

My favorite kind of popular history book is the journalistic type that involves the author as a participant. Not necessarily in a gonzo way (like Tony Horwitz), but in a way that lets you see the author's reasoning process and reactions to the material clearly differentiated from the sources themselves. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich did this very well in The Midwife's Tale. I also like An Imperfect God, by Henry Wiencek.

myles said...

Barbara Tuchman was always good at narrative history without the fatal flaws of 'colonising' the past with the present, and foreshadowing events.

You know the problems: writing of people or societies in the past as though they were an unformed version of our modern selves. Assuming they are just like us, but in funny clothes. Or writing with perfect hindsight ("Little did they know that, within a year, the French would invade ..... and so on)

She made no unfounded assumptions about the minds or motivations of her 'characters' but still told some terrific stories. I would particularly recommend "The March of Folly" and "A Distant Mirror"

jrlennon said...

My uncle recommended Tuchman...I will definitely try her out this summer.

David Rochester said...

You know, the dramatization aside, the sentence you quoted is pretty bad just from a structural standpoint. Yeesh.

I have very little patience with nonfiction that isn't just plain factual ... but the awkward solution to over-dramatization, if one isn't aiming to be purely factual, is something along the lines of: "Surely, as he sat on the steps, he chuckled, as any seemingly-successful assassin would do" -- which is incredibly awkward, but which I've seen in a number of books. The author(s) were always speculating about what the historical figure in question "must have" been thinking, or "probably" felt. *sigh*