I read an interesting article recently in Rethinking History Vol 14 Issue 1, 2010. It was called ‘A letter from an emeritus historian c.2049’, written by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of History at University of California, Irvine.
The framing device of the article was that it was written by a retired professor in 2049 who had been approached by a younger historian who had uncovered articles of his written back at the turn of the twentieth century- around 2009 or thereabouts. The elderly professor, conscious of not wanting to be seen as doddery or rambling (but probably not succeeding!), has written to the younger researcher reminiscing about historiography fifty years earlier, recalling his own publishing career, and expressing some regrets about history-writing seen in retrospect.
It took me back to the time in the 1980s when I was frustrated (albeit not for the same reasons as those the author describes) by wanting to ‘write my second book first’ (a lovely phrase). And to moments in the 1990s and early noughts, when I found myself admiring books by young professors of history who, more daringly than me, began their careers by writing ‘second books’ immediately.
Writing the second book first- the book that you wanted to write all along, but were dissuaded from writing. I must admit that at the moment the idea of my writing ANY book seems in the realm of the far-away, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the constraints of the traditional thesis genre. I feel as if I am receiving mixed messages about this. On the one hand we are pressured early to map out a chapter plan, no doubt to give some direction to our writing. Where a PhD has been published later as a book (and I know that there’s often much rewriting that goes into this) it seems that often the traditional thesis chapter structure is so integral to the thinking that it follows the work into its new incarnation where, to me, it often reveals the academic DNA of the original.
But at the same time, we’re being told that the door is ajar to do things differently- although, tellingly, those who are calling us from the other room are no longer supervising students directly. I attended a workshop given by John Hirst a couple of weeks ago called ‘Must History Have Chapters?’ where he distributed the tables of contents of a range of history books and theses including Michael Roe’s The Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia, Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada (1959) , and the more recent Pistols! Treason! Murder! by Jonathan Walker – and wow! check out the website!
I feel as if I’m being enticed to be courageous- but not quite yet: to be brave- within limits. I’m not really sure how I want to write my thesis and having upgraded it to encompass Willis’ whole career opens up options that I hadn’t considered before. Another post for another day will explore my own feelings about the use of “I” in my thesis, and I’ll be attending a writing retreat in late October that I know, already, will push my writing- or at least help me clarify where I don’t want to go. I’m pleased that I’m still at a stage where I haven’t ventured so far in any one direction that I can’t head off somewhere completely different.