Comfortable history

This is going to be a two-parter.

Once upon a time I had lunch with David McCullough.

Yes, the David McCullough. And no, I can’t claim that I know him very well. Forgive the explanatory aside, but it so happens that my brother enjoys a certain degree of celebrity in the Boston area, and he, in turn, had made Mr. McCullough’s acquaintance. [Sorry for the mention, bro, but I’ll keep it vague from here on.] It was the autumn of 2003, and my brother – God bless him – had decided that I needed to get away from writing academic monographs and into writing bigger history. It was not something that I was all that eager to do in 2003. Like a lot of academic historians, I harbored a certain contempt for “popular history” as a genre. [Yes, I’ve since had a tremendous change-of-attitude; see my post on amateur and professional historians here.] But my brother had great ambitions for me, and he dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the world of trade publishing. I’ll be forever grateful to him for that.

Anyway, my brother was firmly convinced that if I were to chat with Mr. McCullough then I would cast aside my reservations and jump with both feet from one world to the other. In the long run, it worked. In the short run, not so much. Lunch went great, mind you, once I got over being star-struck (which doesn’t happen often for me). Good Lord, I thought to myself after about ten minutes of conversation with Mr. McCullough, I’m sitting across the table from the Voice of Ken Burns’ Civil War. There was something disconcerting about that.

But more disconcerting was Mr. McCullough’s advice. I had waxed eloquent, describing my idea for a popular narrative approach. It was a story that I had run across in my days as a Scandinavianist. A truly great story about a Lutheran parson in seventeenth-century Denmark who had been (possibly) falsely accused of murder, railroaded to his death on the block, and later avenged by his son. Full of murder, treachery, and all good things. It was too narrow for an academic monograph, and anyway an academic approach would have drained it of all its blood and vigor. Mr. McCullough seemed to like the idea. It was indeed a very good story, he remarked. “But have you given any thought to writing it as fiction?”

I felt as if I had been slapped. Fiction? What the hell? No, I thought, no, I won’t write it as fiction, because it doesn’t need to be fictionalized. Did The Return of Martin Guerre need to be fictionalized? Fortunately I didn’t let my frustration get the better of me. “Well, of course that’s a possibility. But I’d rather write it as non-fiction.”

Mr. McCullough proceeded to teach me a lesson that I didn’t want to hear but definitely needed to hear. What he told me, in essence, was this: Americans like to read about history. Their history. Nothing against Europe, but unless it involved World War II or Hitler or the Tudors then – generally, for of course there were occasional exceptions – then by and large Americans weren’t all that interested. Or, rather, no major press would likely take a chance on it. But Denmark? No. That wouldn’t work, not as non-fiction. Americans don’t read about Denmark, or don’t buy books about it, anyway.

I simply couldn’t believe that. Or I wouldn’t. A good story was a good story, no matter what the setting. Was I supposed to believe that Americans would rather read yet another biography of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln than something new, exotic, bloody, and scandalous?

So for the next twelve months I tried to convince myself that David McCullough couldn’t possibly know what he was talking about. I wrote up what I thought was a very good proposal for my Danish story – and, since I was on sabbatical at the time, I even wrote up a first draft of the completed book. I then peddled my proposal to every literary agent I could find in the US who dealt with “history” or “narrative non-fiction.” Not a nibble. Nothing. Not even rejection letters. Not even form rejection letters. I had just about given up when my brother sent me a review of McCullough’s 1776, a review that lamented the lack of books on the military history of the American Revolution. I thought it over for a few minutes, had a minor epiphany, and the idea that later became The Drillmaster of Valley Forge was born. Now, when I sent out my new proposal – for a biography of the Baron de [von] Steuben, I got responses. Mostly rejections, but lots of interest. And finally an email from a man named Will Lippincott, who shortly thereafter would become my agent. The proposal for Drillmaster wasn’t any more compelling than the one for the Danish story. But it was American, and it included such comfortably familiar things as Valley Forge and George Washington. Hence it was assured of an audience.

How often do we hear that some topic – some allegedly neglected topic – “isn’t in the history books”? It’s got to be one of the most irritating popular phrases about history, right up there with “[some event/person/development/invention] changed the course of history” (that’s so wrong on so many levels, not least because – I hate to break it to you, but…history doesn’t have a course), or “history repeats itself,” or the whole “France has never won a war” meme. [Oh God! I finally used the word “meme”! What’s next – remarking that something is “impactful” or “empowering”?] But “not in the history books”…I don’t know where to start with that one. I understand that it can mean that something is not common knowledge, but saying that it’s “not in the history books” seems to argue that historians have deliberately ignored it. What the phrase usually means, though, is “I’ve never heard of this before but I’m not about to take responsibility for my own ignorance.” You might have to delve into something more detailed than a coffee-table book, or – gasp! – actually read academic literature, but I can assure you that at least nine times out of ten, whenever you hear that something isn’t in “the history books” it actually is. The same thing goes for nearly every book, article, or documentary that purports to tell “the untold story” of one topic or another. Invariably the story has been told before, likely many times. I think it’s just another manifestation of that “history as the Everyman discipline” phenomenon, that people who are clearly not experts in any field of history feel qualified to proclaim that historians have ignored an important topic.

No matter. My point is this: on the one hand, we – Americans, that is – say that we want to hear the untold story, that we want to know those things that weren’t revealed to us in “the history books”…and yet collectively we seem to shy away from topics that are unfamiliar. Occasionally, compelling narrative, by itself, is enough to draw attention; witness Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea and Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, each of which tells a story that would be unfamiliar to most Americans.

In academic history, there are very obvious factors driving what it is that historians write about and what they don’t write about – that will be my Part 2 – but for now I’m curious:

How much popular, narrative history is truly original? Or at least novel?

How much covers familiar territory?

And will our thirst for George Washington biographies ever be slaked?

PS That Danish idea? For those of you — and I suspect there’s not many — who read lots of Danish literature, here’s a clue — Blicher’s Præsten i Vejlby, without the parts that Blicher made up. Yes, I’m going to write it. And yes, it’s going to be a novel. Took me long enough to figure it out, eh?

About Paul Lockhart

I'm a history professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio...and I write books about history.
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3 Responses to Comfortable history

  1. Kate says:

    For that matter, how many historical novels are “novel”? Granted, people do seem to be more adventurous in their fiction-reading, but not by much. If you peruse the fiction section of a Barnes and Noble, the vast majority of the historical fiction you’ll find will consist of terrible, terrible novels about Tudor England (generally part of a broader, obnoxiously regressive genre I like to call “Ladies Who Slept With Great Men”), some staples of American history (Revolution, slavery, Civil War, pioneers!), and a few pockets in other fields of history (so with Egypt, for example, it’s always Hatshepsut, Amarna, and Cleopatra VII). Sometimes cool and original stuff becomes popular, but historical-fiction readers clearly have their own limited comfort zones. It’s the sort of thing that makes me despair about publishing any fiction I’ve written, because I have no intention of writing the billionth crappy novel about Nefertiti.

    • Sad but true, Kate. Though I’m always glad to see anything — or just about anything — inspire interest in early modern Europe, and much as I love reading Tudor history, I can’t see much that is positive in the flood of bad Tudor novels over the past couple of decades in particular. I guess it’s just exotic enough to be titillating, and just accessible enough to be within the reach of would-be historical novelists who don’t want to be bothered with too much research. [And by “research” here I mean research as it is popularly defined, what you and I would probably call “reading about something” rather than “research.” Interesting how looking up car prices or movie times on the internet can now be graced with the sobriquet “research”!] There are, of course, exceptions, as you know (like Kingsolver), but it does seem as if the “comfort zones” are about the same for fiction as for non-fiction. I wouldn’t despair too much, though, about your fiction interests. Someone I know — who is very close to the industry and knows whereof he speaks — has pointed out to me that setting (chronological and geographical) is less important than plot, description, characters, and of course the requisite “sex and violence” — doesn’t have to be overdone but must be there nonetheless. In other words, story can trump familiarity in fiction, but in non-fiction it’s less likely, if that makes any sense.

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