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Reading ‘History as a Literary Art’

TyperwiterWhen I was an undergraduate taking a class on writing history, and again when I was a graduate student, a professor assigned me to read Samuel Eliot Morison’s essay “History As a Literary Art.” Morison, more than most, was a credible source of writing advice. When he wrote the essay in 1946 he had already won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. By the end of his life, he would pick up another Pulitzer and two Bancroft Prizes. Morison was a professional historian, but he wrote squarely in the tradition of amateur, literary historians like Francis Parkman—perhaps unsurprisingly, since both were Boston blue bloods.

Morison was glad for the gains of academic history, but deplored the writing of only “dull, solid, valuable monographs,” leaving “journalists, novelists, and freelance writers” to ”extract the gold.” The question of popular versus professional history, and the audience for each, continues to trouble the academy. While I favor Morison’s position, the value of his essay for me is in advice to “get writing!”

In every research there comes a point, which you should recognize like a call of conscience, when you must get down to
writing. And when you once are writing, go on writing as long as you can; there will be plenty of time later to shove in the footnotes or return to the library for extra information. Above all, start writing. Nothing is more pathetic than the “gonna” historian, who from graduate school on is always “gonna” write a magnum opus but never completes his research on the subject, and dies without anything to show for a lifetime’s work.

I sometimes re-read the essay (in part to “postpone the painful drudgery of writing”) to remind myself of what I am trying to do. I suppose it’s like a ProfHacker post from the 1940s. (And we have plenty of posts on writing, including my all-time favorite ProfHacker post.) At the end of an academic year and the start of a summer, what do you read to keep yourself on track? Do you have a perennial favorite?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user xlibber / Creative Commons Licensed

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