The Art of History
Crafting Histories: For Whom Does One Write?
Dipesh Chakrabarty, March 2010
The Art of History is a new series of articles by senior scholars who are willing to share their thoughts on, and offer advice about, some aspect of the art and craft of historical research and writing, drawing upon their own experiences in particular. The series began in December 2009 with Caroline Walker Bynum’s article "Teaching Scholarship" and continued in February, 2010 with Lynn Hunt essay, "How Writing Leads to Thinking."
Historians often—and often rightly— complain about colleagues or students whose prose seems “turgid” or laden with the jargon of “theory.” In India, where much academic debate is conducted through op-ed columns in English-language newspapers, this complaint is sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes. When William Dalrymple’s book, The Last Mughal—an extremely readable and well-researched book—was published in 2006, it provoked, somewhat predictably and I believe with some encouragement from the author, a question some historians in India had pushed before: Shouldn’t all historians write in a style that is accessible and attractive to lay readers?1 This particular debate in India is, of course, an extreme version of the problem but it goes to show how unfortunate and simplistic the binary at issue—accessible versus inaccessible prose—is, for any dogmatic answer to this question actually lands us in intellectual dead-ends. When someone writes explicitly targeting the general reading public, it only makes sense to write in a prose accessible to all. But it would not be very intelligent to insist that all academic histories must be written in prose understandable to everybody. Take Amartya Sen’s book on famines that discusses the Bengal famine of 1943.2 A highly intelligent book no doubt—and a kind of history too, since it was about what happened in the past—but its mathematics or logic may not be of interest to the lay or untrained reader. Should Sen have written his book as a thriller? Irfan Habib’s celebrated masterpiece on Mughal agrarian history could be another example.3
Sometimes we write on historical issues in which our readers, in the popular domain or in the profession, already have an acute factual interest. All national or local histories will have versions exemplifying this point, but let me give a few examples from South Asian history. The partition of the province of Bengal in 1947 into the Indian state of West Bengal and the Pakistani state of East Pakistan was preceded by some very horrendous ethnic killings in the city of Calcutta. Having been born in West Bengal in a Hindu family after independence, I always grew up with the story that the then Muslim premier of the province, H. S. Suhrawardy, actually controlled the police force during the riots to make sure that the Muslim violence demanding Pakistan could continue for a while. Now, did Suhrawardy really control the police during the Calcutta riots of 1946? This is a question that is still asked in Calcutta. Or there is the mystery, now old, hanging over the death of the Indian nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, popularly known as Netaji. Did Netaji really die in a plane crash? There are many readers still interested to find out the answer to this particular puzzle. If a historian could write a book on this topic that read like a detective story, he or she would enjoy roaring sales at Indian airports and railway stations. Similarly, some parts of our national pasts have intrinsic story-value: for example, the Civil War in the United States or the Great Rebellion of 1857, often called the Mutiny, in India. The latter was indeed the subject of Dalrymple’s book. The events of 1857 have inspired a number of films, novels, and popular histories over generations. Dalrymple is surely not the first person to produce a readable narrative account of the Mutiny. There were Michael Edwardes, Saul David, Andrew Ward, and many others before him and others before them. But not all aspects of our past enjoy such popularity. Anil Seal’s book on nationalism, a pioneering analysis that contributed to making modern Indian history an academic subject, was very well written.4 I don’t think it ever enjoyed a wide popularity among Indian readers. Should Seal have changed his style?
Sometimes, again, there are factual issues that make sense only to specialists in particular histories. A debate raged in Soviet history a decade or two ago about the number of people who had been killed by Stalin’s purges and famines in the early 1930s. Robert Conquest calculated a figure that was higher—by several millions—than the figure (which ran into millions anyway) arrived at by the younger historian Stephen Wheatcroft. Being an outsider to the field, I once put a very nonspecialist question to Wheatcroft. “Why do you quibble over whether it was eight million or twelve or twenty? Wouldn’t even a few thousand have been bad enough for the reputation of the Revolution?” Knowing very little about intricacies of Soviet historiography, my “lay” question was essentially a moral one. Wheatcroft’s answer made me see how specialists’ factual interest could be different from that of the lay reader. He said that the higher figure would make it very difficult to explain certain features of the labor market in the Soviet Union and thus pose some critical difficulties in the history of Soviet industrialization. Here it was not the inaccessibility of prose or postmodern debates about facts that was the issue. To appreciate the facts themselves required some training in academic Soviet history that I did not possess.
Nor is the matter of reaching a wide audience or readership always a question of writing simple prose. Foucault’s histories of the prison or the clinic or the asylum were not written in a style that many historians would encourage their students to adopt. But they were enormously successful, both in academic and marketing terms. The French history of reading and writing, a certain moment in the global history of western social and political theory, and Foucault’s own genius—all combined to make his works a “success.” Inaccessibility on the part of a lesser author writing at a different moment of history may not have the same sex appeal. But there is no intrinsic argument here about simple prose creating wider readership.
I often find that I make two rather opposed demands on myself in my professional life. But they are both important, not mutually exclusive. When I perform the role of a teacher, I find that my task is to make that which looks complex and forbiddingly difficult, easy to grasp. But when I myself act as an inquirer into societies and their pasts, I need to challenge myself intellectually. Then I read people who help make things that are seemingly easy, as complex and difficult as possible (complexity, clarity, and subtlety can coexist in the same text). These are the people I turn to when I feel the need to have all my preconceptions challenged. Sometimes these challenges arise from new facts, oftentimes from working through unfamiliar and difficult ideas. In Indian history, D. D. Kosambi and Ranajit Guha have often performed that role for me. I would never think of demanding of such authors that they always wrote in prose that I could just idly consume.
I wonder why authors and journalists who write derisively about professional historians and who insist that we all must write in the style of a Dalrymple (all credit to him for what he has achieved) forget that what gives any field the strength and capacity to flourish is diversity—diversity of approaches, topics, methods, and expository styles. A healthy spirit of competition is one that embraces diversity as a value.
Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in the departments of history and of South Asian languages and civilizations and in the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author, among others, of Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (second edition, 2007). He is currently engaged in completing two books for the University of Chicago Press; they have the working titles of “Presentism and the Predicament of Postcolonial History” and “The Climate of History: Four Theses.”