Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Academic/Popular History as it should be

It really is possible to write academic history for a popular audience. I know it. I've just read it.

A few days ago Shirley Tillotson asked the great question, in a comment on this blog, 'Wouldn't it be great if every month there were two or three really interesting trade paperbacks on Canadian historical topics on the Globe's bestseller list?'

Wouldn't it, though?

How about this as a model: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern? (Although I note the British edition had the more accurate subtitle, How the Renaissance Began, which is itself part of an answer. I guess North American publishers assume that we won't know what the Renaissance is!).

The Swerve is the best example I've read of how smart history can, and should, be written for a popular audience. It tells a deceptively simple story about the rediscovery, in 1417, of a single manuscript - Lucretius's On the Nature of Things. But in the process, it covers a world of ground, going back to the ideas of the ancient romans and greeks, not only to Lucretius but also to Epicurus before him. Going back and forth from the world that rediscovered this book in the 15th century, we learn of book culture in the Roman empire and its demise. We learn of the monasteries in which literate culture was maintained for centuries. We feel and smell and almost taste the reading rooms at the monasteries. We are sitting next to the monks as they copy these old manuscripts, being careful to only (it was hoped) pay attention to the Latin. God forbid (or St Benedict forbid anyway) that they think about the heretical ideas in many of these documents they were copying and reciting.

Up we come to the 15th century and the world of Poggio Braciolini and the other humanists who were searching for these manuscripts for the ancient world. We get a brief, poignant history of the Renaissance through this one story.

Greenblatt is splendid as he glides over the surface of academic debate. He takes in what is necessary but then continues his stride. Listen to him on the many ways in which the obsession of folks like Braciolini (and the Renaissance itself) wasn't, in fact, quite so unprecedented:

'Modern scholarship has found dozens of ways to qualify and diminish this obsession'

Oomph. That hurt! What does he mean? He is referring, of course, to the many other mini-renaissances, the many earlier points during the middle (not dark, no never dark) ages that had already flirted with the same ideas and practices and desires that Braciolini is bringing back to life.

Greenblatt does his duty. He covers these many qualifiers. Then he also gets on with the business of explaining just how revolutionary this moment was. Entire cadres of academics have spent their lives on those qualifiers. They get their due: a few pages. Then it's time to move on...

This is what makes Greenblatt's book such a wonderful read. It's learned, but not academic. It tells a magnificent story. The research is rooted in years of complex academic scholarship. The story to be told, though, does something else. It tells a fascinating story. And it tells it well.


  1. It's hard to be as learned about Canadian history as Greenblatt can be about the Renaissance though, isn't it? There aren't many (any?) areas of similarly deep scholarly debate in our historiography. But never mind -- we can still speak to big questions from the standpoint of our small large country.

    Anyhow, thanks for picking up on my "Wouldn't it be great?" question, Chris. I hope others chime in with favourites, recent or ancient. There are lots of different things to like about different kinds of history. For example, when I read David Noble's _Forces of Production_ (about the turning points that led to failure in -- wait for it -- the American machine tooling industry!) it opened my eyes to history of technology. A wonderful moment, before I became an historian. But we'll never find that Noble book on the bookstore shelves. It's a university library book, if ever there was one.

    A love for that book, and perhaps this is true for a lot of great Canadian history, may be an acquired taste, for something rather adult and not always available, like artichokes.

    Shirley Tillotson

    1. This is very, very true Shirley. I say it especially as I am coordinating a first year course that is team taught. I watch with envy as my colleagues come in to give modules on areas of scholarship that have so much written about them - we've just finished great modules on Nazi Germany and lynching in the US. Now I'm up with the Cold War in Canada. There is some great work, but just not enough of it. I've revised lectures this year for two new books - the Kealey, Parnaby, Whitaker survey book on the Secret SErvice and Andrew Burtch's book on Civil Defence. But I wish I had about a dozen more books to flesh everything out. Oh well....