James McPherson says he learned to write through trial and error (Interview)

Historians in the News
tags: James McPherson



Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing in Eastern Washington University’s writing program. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

About a zillion years ago, I was an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, apprenticed to Sheldon Meyer, one of the great editors of American history. Sheldon had exquisite taste and the ability to keep his authors happy and productive by dint of his supportive intelligence, patience, and many-martini lunches. He was responsible for a series of trade books on the history of the United States, to be edited by C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter. The three of them came up with an all-star line up of scholars to write each volume, and contracts were issued.

When I got to the press, in 1984, only one of the books had been published, The Glorious Cause, by Robert Middlekauff. The series, as is often the case with ambitious publishing projects, had gotten stalled. So when James M. McPherson submitted a gargantuan manuscript for what would become Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), everyone was excited. I got to do extremely important work on the proj­ect: cheerily typing up the front matter, numbering the pages by hand, making copies, and having endless discussions about maps.

The book was published to glorious reviews, won a Pulitzer Prize, and became a New York Times best seller.

You are an excellent, lucid, and lively writer. How did that happen? Where and what did you learn about writing well?

McPherson: I learned how to write mainly by the trial and error of writing. I learned little or nothing in high school, because there were few real writing assignments in my classes at a small-town Midwestern public school. The first real papers I wrote were in college, where I guess I showed steady improvement from initial mediocrity to a senior thesis (on the early history of public education in my hometown from the 1850s to the 1870s) that earned a high grade for style as well as substance.

A good many years later, however, I reread that thesis and was demoralized by how bad the writing style really was. I had yet to learn not to use two or more words when one would do, to use the active voice and action verbs whenever possible, and to keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum.

I did take a creative-writing course during my senior year, but, in looking back, I don’t think that I learned a great deal from it — with one exception. The professor assigned us various categories of writing — essays, reports, descriptions of events and scenes, fiction, and so on. At the time, I was going through a Hemingway phase, so I wrote a short story in my best Hemingway style. It must have been awful, because the instructor wrote in his commentary that I should stick to expository writing. From that experience I learned two important lessons: Write in my own voice rather than imitate another writer; and stay away from fiction.

I think that it was in graduate school that I really learned how to write history. In part this was a result of increasing maturity and professionalism, which translated into a more mature and professional prose. It was also the result of reading all the great works by historians that I encountered during those years.

In the final analysis, I think that one learns how to write by reading good writing and consciously or subconsciously absorbing the models while retaining one’s own voice. Writers like Allen Nevins, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Hofstadter, David Herbert Donald, George Mowry, and Arthur Link. ...




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