Scholars Talk Writing: Louis P. MasurHistorians in the News
tags: writing, writing history
I met Louis P. Masur in 1988, just before his first book, Rites of Execution, was published by Oxford University Press, where I was then an acquisitions editor. We hung out at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Reno, Nev., and he taught me how to play blackjack. Let’s just say he was very, very good at the game. The skills required to be an excellent card player seem to be useful for academics: an ability to keep track of information, a mind for pattern recognition, and a willingness to take calculated risks.
Since then, Masur, a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University, has written books pursuing his interest in 19th-century American history and literature and 20th-century (and beyond) popular culture. His most recent book, published by Oxford in September, is The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America.
Nearly 20 years ago you wrote an essay in The Chronicle on “What It Will Take to Turn Historians Into Writers.” What were you arguing back then?
Masur: I was urging scholars to focus on the craft of writing and to take prose as seriously as they take doing research and making historical arguments. Craft and storytelling can reach people in different ways than the presentation of research and scholarly argumentation.
It had been 10 years since Simon Schama employed fiction in Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) — his lyrical meditation on historical truth, on how we ever know or narrate what happened. The profession survived his heresy, but I came away more committed than ever to storytelling and thinking about how the techniques and tools of fiction might be applied to nonfiction writing, just as so many novelists had used the tools of historical research to write works of the imagination that seemed true to the past.
What has changed since then about how historians write, and what remains the same?
Masur: While it has not flourished to the extent that I had hoped, an interest in the art of writing history has a small but vibrant following in the academy. Aaron Sachs and John Demos’s newly published Artful History: A Practical Anthology gathers some of those writers and includes pieces by, among others, Wendy Warren, Stephen Berry, Saidiya Hartman, and Jonathan Holloway, who is now president at Rutgers, where I teach.
And for the last dozen years, James Goodman, who also has an essay in that collection, has edited a special issue of Rethinking History devoted to history as creative writing. It includes the work not only of academics but also graduate students and undergraduates, who demonstrate that some of the most exciting writing is coming from those who are not yet professionalized.
What remains the same for me is what I quoted in that 2001 Chronicle piece — Shelby Foote’s observation, expressed in a letter to the novelist Walker Percy, that “most people think mistakenly that writers are people who have something to tell them. Nothing I think could be wronger. If I knew what I wanted to say I wouldn’t write at all. What for? Why do it if you already know the answers? Writing is the search for the answers, and the answer is in the form, the method of telling, the exploration of self, which is our only clew to reality.”
Not everyone in the profession should feel compelled to become a writer, and I admire academics who produce scholarship aimed at those in their field. At the same time, the profession at large has seldom valued the art of nonfiction. For graduate students, in particular, it has never been more important to learn how to write for a broader audience. Many future jobs for them may be in public history, and translating specialized knowledge for nonspecialists is a craft worth studying. That means having graduate students write not only scholarly, historiographic research papers but also editorials and essays.
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