Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models

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Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Writers, readers, publishers, and money

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.”  She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read.  They’re eating our lunches!

History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.

In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.

To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling.  His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points:  Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively.  I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working.  (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)

This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two.  Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading

Z.O.M.G.: I agree with Katie Roiphe entirely.

AnneTaintoryourlifestyle

Why, yes! Yes, I do.

Alert the authorities:  Katie Roiphe is dead right about “Why Professors Should Not Have Affairs with Their Students:”   Longtime readers may recall that I’ve been pretty unsparing in my criticism of Roiphe for a long, long time now, but she really nails it here.

In this new essay, Roiphe writes from the perspective of seeing a number of male colleagues have affairs with their graduate and undergraduate students, and I’ve seen it too among men in the profession–my age and even younger, so it’s not going away anytime soon (although thank the Goddess I’ve never seen it among my colleagues in my department.)  First, it’s an obvious and embarrassing trope:  “The dynamic is so trite one can barely commit it to the page, but it seems that otherwise charismatic, original men are completely happy to inhabit this cliché, to live and work in it. In my experience these are men who would rather die than dress or speak or write in a clichéd way, but in this particular area of triteness, they feel entirely comfortable.”

Also, “the prospect of sleeping with an undergraduate seems a little like wanting to sleep with a puppy,” as in bestiality, not as in chaste and adorable puppy snuggling, which is obvs. perfectly fine.  But who cares if a middle-aged schlub makes a fool of himself?  I don’t, and neither does Roiphe, because of course it’s the damage to students and to the trust in the professor-student relationship that concerns her most: Continue reading

Maybe not the “dumbest generation?”

dunceMark Bauerlein, a not-that-old fogy at an elite university, wrote something cranky about the practice of higher education in the New York Times last weekend.  The column has been subjected to a ritual beating by many in the academic blogosphere.  Yesterday, a call went out from David Perry (@Lollardfish on Twitter, and the blog How Did We Get Into This Mess) that he “would like to see R1 profs engage in a loud and public conv[ersation] ab[out] teaching and research.”  Although I teach at an R1, it’s the Aggie school in my state and certainly not “elite.”  I also don’t teach Ph,D. students, as my History department offers just a Master’s Degree.

This year, as regular readers know, I’ve been far away from the grind at Baa Ram U. and on sabbatical at the Huntington Library, a.k.a. “Scholars’ Disneyland.”  I’ve been living much like a Renaissance scholar, dining at the table and enjoying the luxuries of my sponsoring Prince–that is to say, nothing like my real life, but you know what?  The conversations I’ve been having here with the Distinguished Fellows–all of whom teach at elite universities and supervise Ph.D. students as well as undergraduates–frequently revolves around teaching, and yes, teaching undergraduates!  How do we reach them?  How do we get them to become and remain History majors?  What subjects interest them most, and how can we use those interests to develop an aptitude for historical thinking?

We’re like young parents who want nothing more than a night away from the children, and then we end up talking about the children the whole time we’re out to dinner. Continue reading

Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present, and age as a category of historical analysis

ageinamericaIs age the next new category of analysis in history?  I think it might be, and not just because I’m one of the contributing authors.  From an email from co-editor Nicholas L. Syrett I received this weekend:

Age in America has been published (New York University Press, 2015)! I’m at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting this weekend in St. Louis and the very first two advance copies made it here just in time (and both were sold by conference’s end). The assistant editor at NYU Press will send you your copy as soon as the books stock at NYU’s warehouse (Cori and I don’t even have ours yet). I have attached a photo of the book sitting in the NYU Press booth. Within a couple weeks it should be available to order through bookstores, etc.

The co-editors of the volume, Nick Syrett and Corinne T. Field, worked hard with contributors to get a good mix of established and emerging scholars and to cover a pretty broad swath of American history (table of contents here.)  My essay, “‘Keep me With You, So That I Might Not Be Damned:’  Age and Captivity in Colonial Borderlands Warfare,” is the first essay in the collection after Field’s and Syrett’s introduction.  There are thirteen other essays in the volume, which covers not just the expected modern markers of age and how they came to be (age of suffrage, the drinking age, the age of retirement and Social Security benefits), but also essays by Yuki Oda on age and immigration politics (“‘A Day Too Late:’  Age, Immigration Quotas, and Racial Exclusion,”) Stuart Schoenfield on age 13 for American Jews, and Norma E. Cantú on the quinceañera for Latin@ girls. Continue reading

American Revolution scholarship and the spirit of 1976

bicentennial1

Not my family, but behold the Spirit of ’76!

Michael D. Hattem has a thoughtful review on the stagnation of scholarship on the American Revolution over at the Junto. He writes about the ways in which intellectual histories of the coming of the Revolution were preeminent in the 1960s, and then dominance of social histories of the effects of the Revolution in the 1970s and 1980s.  He also writes about the call for transnational or global histories, which work against interests in writing about quintessentially nationalist events like the Revolution, and finally concludes:

I would argue that the last thirty years (and the explicit raison d’être of the conferences, i.e., the stagnation of Revolution studies) show us unlikelihood of “new directions” organically emerging from working within these paradigms. That is not the fault of the paradigms or the historians working within them since it was not something they appear to have intended to achieve. But I also do not think those paradigms lend themselves to producing the kind of consensus required to actually forge new directions in a field that has been so mired in such a deep rut for so long a period of time. To break out of this rut––to reconstruct the Revolution, as it were––will require more than that. It will require historians who care about the American Revolution as its own topic to confront our historiographical predicament head-on.

Go read the whole thing–it’s worth it, even if I don’t think he provides a lantern out of the darkness and disinterest in the Revolution.  Many of the distinguished scholars he mentions have tried–and failed–effectively to re-ignite our interest. Hattem must be at least a little younger than me, because he left out an organizing event in that 1960s and 1970s frenzy of scholarship on the Revolution, namely, the 1976 Bicentennial. Continue reading