Category Archives: Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #19


Roger K. Newman, ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’

To be honest, I had no idea who Justice Hugo Black is. My interest is not so much in him as in the advice given by his biographer, Roger K. Newman in a chapter called ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’ in a collection of essays with the rather utilitarian title The National Conference on Legal Information Issues: Selected Essays.  His chapter is about the process of writing a judicial biography, although his advice is applicable to any type of biography, judicial or not.  Indeed, much of it applies to any writing, biography or not.  And, I suspect, the chapter is more relevant to writing a book than a thesis.  Nonetheless-

The cardinal rule- call it Newman’s first law of biography- is to show the reader what happened, not just tell him.  Dramatize dialogue and set scenes- even the most flat-footed facts can be presented appealingly. Indulge in metaphor, vary sentence length and structure. Foreshorten perspective, summarize when necessary and recapitulate (some things are important enough to remind the reader). Pace the narrative- a biography is a story, not an argument.* Drop hints.  Planting my pistols early, I was able to use flashbacks.  I took to calling this “closing the circle”. (p.208-9)

*Me: A story, not an argument? Mmm. Not sure that I agree.  Especially in a thesis/biography.

Newman’s second law of biography is to omit almost anything that does not bear directly on the central protagonist… The point is that a biography should be shaped and molded. Condensation is indispensable.  Even in this egalitarian age, not everything is of equal importance.  Just because something happened, and we know about it, does not mean it should be immortalized.* (p. 210)

* Me: This is a real temptation when you have only a limited amount of source material of a particular type.  You’re so grateful for the scraps that you have that you feel that you want to make as much as you can of them.  But, to be honest, they don’t really advance the story (or is it the argument?) much.

Thus comes Newman’s third law of biography: Use spirited prose and humour… A biography is, after all, about people, and people want to read about other people  It is the most humanizing of all literary ventures, especially at a time when heroes have been taken off the pedestal and defrocked. (p. 210)

And so-

Portraying character in action lies at the heart of biography. A biographer must look for the telling incident, the revealing detail.  He is the unseen hand- the biographer as Adam Smith- shuffling, dealing, reassembling the deck, his active imagination dealing with malleable facts.  Like a director, he changes the scenes and brings supporting figures to the fore as needed, dressing them as needed and then sending them backstage.  He is present everywhere yet seen nowhere- only in his choice of materials and language.  I could have written almost every chapter in at least one other way. (p. 212)

Roger K. Newman, ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’ In Timothy L. Coggins The National Conference on Legal Information Issues: Selected Essays. (American Association of Law Libraries) AALL Publications Series No. 51, Colorado,  Fred B.Rothmann & Co, 1996.pp. 201-214

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #17

I’ve been thinking recently about being a reader of history, as distinct from a writer.  I like the ideas in the quote below, but I must admit to wishing that I could rewrite it with different use of punctuation. But I suspect that I am being a picky historical reader, instead of a critical one.

It goes without saying that creative historical writing requires creative historical writers, historians willing and able to take their writing seriously as writing, to see the form of their work as the product of a series of choices, a creative problem they have to solve, a problem at least as open-ended as the problem of coming up with a good subject, the right questions, suitable sources, satisfying answers, interpretations, conclusions and new questions.

Less talked about is another requirement: at every step along the way, creative historical writers will need creative historical readers, readers able and willing to read their history and criticize it as writing.  Those readers will not stop trying to figure out if the author has asked a good question, reckoned with all the appropriate literature, identified sources that will actually allow them to answer their questions, and all the rest.  It simply means that they will also try to determine whether the author has chosen the form, the structure, the voice or voices, the point(s) of view, the language, the length, the controlling metaphors and so much more- that do the subject, the questions, the interpretation or story the   most justice.     James Goodman ‘Editorial’

Rethinking History, Vol 16, No 1 March 2012 p. 1-2.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #16

To live over other people’s lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth , the change, the varying intensity of the same – since it was by these things they themselves lived.

Henry James, William Wetmore Story and his Friends 1903

Leon Edel used this quote as an epigraph to the first volume of his Life of Henry James.  To be honest, I can’t actually find it in the online versions of William Wetmore Story.  Still, interesting quote…..

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #15

Go on reading until you can hear people talking

G. M. Taylor (cited in many places including Today and Yesterday p. 112; and Last Essays p. 9 but I must admit that I haven’t actually seen it).

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #14: Keith Sinclair

Pardon the gendered language- it was written 35 years ago.

In biography, in other respects probably the most difficult form of historical writing, there is at least in principle a clear guide to what is relevant.  Biography is about a man, and the ideal data is that which seems to take us deepest into his or her personality, like Florence Nightingale’s Notes from God, or Alfred Deakin’s prayers.  Since he knows what is central, the author should know what  is peripheral.

Keith Sinclair ‘On Writing Shist’ Historical Studies Vol 13, No 51, 1968 pp. 426-432

Easy, huh?

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #13: Geraldine Brooks

From her Boyer lecture (available for download here)

Writing may aspire to art, but it begins as craft.  Words are stones, and the book is a wall. You choose each stone with consideration, you place it with effort.  Sometimes, you find just the right stone- the right shape and heft- for that difficult niche, and the effect is beautiful and satisfying. Your wall has gone up straight and true.

Other days, you pick up one stone and then another, and none of them is right. You try it, it will not fit.  Frustrated, you jam it in anyhow.  The effect is unsightly, the balance precarious.  You come back the next day and you cannot bear to look at it.  You bring in the backhoe and knock it over.  The important thing is the effort.  There can be no day without lifting stones.

And after enough days, if you have sweated enough, scraped enough skin off your hands, been patient and diligent with your craft, unsparing in use of the backhoe, you will, in the end, have a wall. And it may even be a beautiful wall that will last for a hundred years.

(Reported in The Age, 10 December 2011)

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #12: Hazel Rowley

I was saddened to read that Hazel Rowley died in March this year. It’s timely that I should write this post aware that the French department of the University of Adelaide is hosting a day-long tribute to her this coming Saturday 19th November. One of the  conundrums of the internet is the status of a website of a person who has died. Should it be left as it was? Does updating it somehow detract from its integrity, or does it honour the person’s ongoing relevance? Hazel Rowley’s website has been taken down this route by her sister.

I enjoyed reading Rowley’s 2007 LaTrobe University/Australian Book Review lecture “The Ups The Downs: My Life as a Biographer”, which is available on the ABR archives page (you’ll need to scroll down almost to the bottom of the page).  Once again, I haven’t actually read any of the biographies she has written, but this comment about the art of writing biography struck a chord with me:

Biographers carry a big responsibility.  They have someone’s life in their hands.  What’s unjust is that, if you read a dull biography, you come away thinking that person’s life was dull.  In reality it’s almost never the life that’s the problem; it’s the narration.  No wonder people are wary of biographers.  It’s hard enough to die; we don’t want some dullard turning our lives into insipid gruel.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #11: Ged Martin again

p. 31 It is difficult to imagine that any historian would claim total survival of evidence for any episode of the past.  Indeed some might wearily conclude that far too much evidence has survived, especially if it consists of archival mounds that they must quarry to ensure that their own research is comprehensive, even though the documents were never designed to help their enquiries in the first place.  Some are tempted to defend their own specialized research by insisting that enough of the materials needed to form an explanation have survived.  This assertion, which is often the only basis on which the scholar can go to work, ultimately rests on the internally contradictory premise that we can identify the materials needed for an explanation even though we cannot be sure that we know everything about the problem we seek to explain.

Ged Martin Past Futures: The Impossible Necessity of History, 2004 p. 31

I was flipping through my notes looking for something this morning, and I noticed this quote from Ged Martin- a historian whom I keep encountering because of his work in Canadian, Australian and empire contexts.  I’ve already cited some of his wisdom previously, but I am particularly aware of him at the moment because I recently read an article of his that was exactly on the topic I needed at exactly the right time.  It was about empire federalism -surely a topic to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, yes? It was a fairly old article from the 1970s, located through Google Scholar, but it was exactly the sort of article that you would have fallen upon as if it were a gold nugget in the pre-computer days because it has exhaustive footnotes.  In particular, he had located evidence (by his own admission, sometimes small and oblique) of the stance of various politicians between 1820 and 1870 on the issue of the colonies being represented in the British Parliament.  As I gazed at these long footnotes, ranging across letters, speeches to Parliament and newspaper articles, I shook my head in awe at how long it must have taken and how much reading must have gone into that one footnote.

Then I thought about the opening line of Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary. This is an unusual book, with a lyrical narrative in the first half, supported by ‘Notes and Reflections’, heavy-duty historical footnotes and nuts-and-bolts in the second half. And I do mean ‘half’- in terms of length and rigour, the two parts are equally balanced.  The opening line of the first half of the book is:

He was the only one. He was the only man to have committed suicide in the town’s seventeenth-century history.

Donna Merwick came out to speak to us during my honours year, and she talked about that first line, and the sheer amount of research that went into making such a definitive statement.  Would I ever feel confident enough to make such a statement?, I wonder.  So often I am paralysed by the fear that there is another source, another archive, that sits just on the other side of the line in the sand that I have drawn when I tell myself “Stop. You have enough. Just write.”

Sometimes I wonder if the sheer availability of texts now through the internet is drowning us, but then I look at Martin’s footnote,  and the Notes and Reflections in Merwick’s book. I consider the paper-based  research tools available in the 1970s, and try to imagine researching with a typewriter and a pile of catalogue cards and my complaint about the deluge of material seems rather lily-livered. I am humbled by the hard work and sheer doggedness such research reveals.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #10

It is hard to think away out of our heads a history which has long lain in a remote past but which once lay in the future.

F.W. Maitland ‘Memoranda de Parliamento (1893) in Selected Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1936) p. 66

F. W. Maitland– now where have I heard that name before? I’m only too well aware of how limited my knowledge is of ‘older’ historians, but the name seemed familiar. I have been reading about Sir Peregrine Maitland in Upper Canada and I thought that perhaps I had the two mixed up.  But then I realized that a picture of F. W. Maitland was on the cover of the conference program at the legal history conference I attended at Cambridge a few weeks ago- in fact, he was the Downing Professor of the Laws of England at Cambridge between 1888-1906.  That surprised me: the quote above seems somehow more reflective and almost postmodern than I would have expected from a 19th century legal historian.

F.W. Maitland was a philosopher at heart, who went into the law for largely pragmatic reasons  and came to history rather late in his prolific, but rather short, academic career.  At the age of 25, and as part of his quest to earn a Trinity Fellowship  he wrote and self-published a treatise called ‘A Historical Sketch of Liberty and Equality as Ideals of English Political Philosophy from the Time of Hobbes to the Time of Coleridge’.   Much of his academic work elaborated on this foundation, whereby he unearthed, transcribed and commented on the broad sweep of English law, right back to Roman and Anglo-Saxon law.  From this he developed a sweeping vision of social relations and modernity both in Britain and the Anglo-world, and on the Continent.   While solidly a records-based historian, grappling with legal, highly technical documents, his works revolve around the larger philosophy of ideas exemplified by de Tocqueville, Adam Smith, Montesquieu and Marx. Although a prolific writer- over 5000 pages- much of his work was conducted in spite of ill-health through tuberculosis, and he died in 1906 at the age of fifty-six.

On the 4th January 2011  a memorial to him was placed in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, the only professional historian to be honoured in this way.   Quite apart from his interest in history and law,  and his clear, evocative writing, his approach to history itself speaks to me.  He was deeply conscious of the dangers of anachronism:

The history of law must be a history of ideas. It must represent, not merely what men have done and said, but what men have thought in bygone ages. The task of reconstructing ancient ideas is hazardous and can only be accomplished little by little.  If we are in a hurry to get to the beginning we shall miss the path. [… ]Against many kinds of anachronism we now guard ourselves. We are careful of costume, of armour and architecture, of words and forms of speech. But it is far easier to be careful of these things than to prevent the intrusion of untimely ideas. […]  ‘The most efficient
method of protecting ourselves against such errors is that of reading our history backwards as well as forwards, of making sure of our middle ages before we talk about the “archaic”, of accustoming our eyes to the twilight before we go out into the night.[…] Above all, by slow degrees the thoughts of our forefathers, their common thoughts about common things, will have become thinkable once more. F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book,  p. 356, p. 520

He knew the importance of starting in the right place to find the essence of the structure.

Too often we allow ourselves to suppose that, could we get back to the beginning, we should find that all was intelligible and should then be able to watch the process whereby simple ideas were smothered under subtleties and technicalities. But it is not so. Simplicity is the outcome of technical subtlety; it is the goal, not the starting point. As we go backwards the familiar outlines become blurred; the ideas become fluid, and instead of the simple we find the indefinite. F.W. Maitland, Domesday Book p. 9


Alan Macfarlane (a renowned social anthropologist in his own right) F. W. Maitland and the Making of the Modern World. It’s downloadable as a PDF here and it displayed brilliantly on my e-reader- being able to read long PDFs in a book-like form without having to print off- now this is what an e-reader does really well.

A You-Tube video Alan Macfarlane lecturing on F.W. Maitland in 2001 in the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University.  There’s no bells and whistles here- it’s just a straight out, softly-spoken, chalk and talk lecture that assumes familiarity with Maine, Montesquieu etc (an unfounded assumption in my case!) but it convey’s Macfarlane’s deep admiration of Maitland and the significance of Maitland’s work.

‘Teaching Scholarship’ by Caroline Walker Bynum

The Facebook page of the Australian Historical Association had a link recently to ‘Art of History’, a column in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History publication.  The column contains essays by established American historians writing on the art and craft of historical writing.  Such copious advice is probably best taken in small doses, so I’ve been enjoying reading slowly, one article at a time.  The first link is to an article from 2009 called ‘Teaching Scholarship’, and a thought-provoking little article it is, not just for a clapped-out and inactive educational designer (as I am) but for historians more generally.

Caroline Walker Bynum, a professor of European medieval history,  starts by pondering what ‘scholarship’ is and comes up with a checklist for what it means for a historian in particular,:

Hard work in archives and libraries without taking shortcuts through the research of others; integrity of citation from primary sources and secondary authorities; thorough grounding in earlier work (and not just that of the 1990s or later); situating of specific conclusions in complex historical contexts; genuine discoveries and original questions, not just a rehash of current theories; and always, always the struggle to ensure that the issues raised are appropriate to the material at hand, that it is not pulled out of shape by contemporary concerns or anxieties…

These values, she suggests, are not part of the baggage that the young undergraduate, or even graduate, brings to history.  The American education system (and I suspect that much of this is true of the Australian system as well) encourages students to “do research” by cutting and pasting primary sources, predominantly from the internet.  By pushing students to move beyond this approach, she claims that college instructors have (albeit unintentionally) encouraged what she calls

a sort of hypercriticality that may undercut—even while it in some ways enhances—what they need in order to be scholars. We have taught them to be critical of where they find material; we have taught them to expect bias and to study authors for it; we have taught them to ask questions of their material, not just “accumulate facts.” All to the good. But in the process we have perhaps led them to think that when they have “critiqued” someone else’s position, they have found one of their own; that the work of the historian is to find the flaws in how others put things; that the task is finished when they have contextualized—as part of a “school” or a “trend,” a political commitment or an “identity position”—someone else’s conclusions. And such contextualizing or “critiquing” often means demolishing. We reward the cheekily worded rejoinder, the clever diagnosis of bias in their supposed elders and betters. It is hard to teach any other way when one needs to engender skepticism about the vast wash of material available out there in cyberspace.

But, she argues, beyond these so-called “critical skills”, there are those values of scholarship that she started her article with, and they often run counter to the quick demolition-job of hypercriticality

We value patience and the ability to postpone gratification until we get something right. We value the silences in our sources more than the speed with which we obtain results; and we are willing to slow down, to read again, to listen to what is not being said, in order that we may spot unlikely possibilities. We assume we are in continuity with the work of other scholars and that the best work is not necessarily the most recent. An archivist in France in 1900, for example, or an archaeologist in Mongolia in the 1950s may have gone further than a recent theorist who knows the basic material less well. We understand that the purpose of a footnote is not so much to disagree with someone else’s argument or call attention to our own interdisciplinary reading as to express gratitude to those earlier scholars without whose work we could not make progress ourselves.

She talks about techniques she uses to encourage this mind-set in her students. One involves getting students to review a review as a genre, to appreciate its demands and to break the reliance on oneupmanship and paraphrase.  A second activity involves getting students to critique a lengthy footnote by following up every source that it references, and to assess- positively or negatively- the relevance and strength that such sources bestow on the argument.   It is only at this point, after students have been alerted to the demands of reviewing and imbued (hopefully) with some sense of  humility, that she asks them to write a book review.

All of this touches on some of the insecurities I feel myself in writing reviews on this blog.  I sometimes come into contact with the authors of books that I’ve reviewed, and while I expect that they’re largely oblivious to the fact that I’ve written about them, I wonder if I’d be quite as confident making my comments to their face.  Sometimes I wonder at my own presumption in commenting on someone else’s achievement in something that I could only dream of: at other times, I wonder at my own presumption in even thinking that what I’m doing even matters at all!