Published Date

January 1, 1926

From The Writing of History (1926)

By Charles W. Colby, former professor of history at McGill University

It is a long way from Herodotus to the late Robert Flint, author of A History of the Philosophy of History. The Aegean is not so distant from the Forth as are these writers from each other. Merely to mention their names is to disclose the universe over which historiography extends. The father of the art tells his story in the common speech of his contemporaries—setting up for all time a standard of lucid, graphic narrative. The Scottish professor, likewise an historian, is constrained by the nature of his subject to use terms which bring us inside the frontier of metaphysics. Can it be doubted that Flint would have made Herodotus stare and gasp?

Many other illustrations could be used to show what is involved when we begin to discuss the writing of history. Consider, for example, the incalculable number of books which have been written regarding different aspects of the past. Without trying to be statistically precise, let any one make his own guess regard ing the number of historical works which will be found in three collections only—the Bibliothèque Nationale, the British Museum, and the Library of Congress. For present purposes it does not matter whether these are numbered by hundreds of thousands or millions. The broad fact is that for many centuries, in many lands, historians of all sorts and conditions have sought to record events in some sort of order. Just as the stranger who traverses sub-alpine Italy for the first time is overwhelmed by fatigue in contemplating the stone walls which have been piled up through the appalling industry of former generations, so it is with the historian who turns back to contemplate what has been wrought by his predecessors. Such an accumulation of books, written in such a variety of styles!

But it is not merely through a sharp contrast between individual historians, or through a statistical enumeration of existing histories that we are made to realize the complexities by which we are beset when we start out to clarify our thought regarding the problem of historical composition. We come to grips with the subject only when we apply the old touchstone of quidquid agunt hominesWhat limit is possessed by history save the whole scope of human thought and action? There is no phase of life in times past which does not furnish a legitimate theme to the historian. Taking this axiom for a point of departure, let those of an analytical habit enumerate all the categories of man’s endeavor. Having thus reached a very large figure, consider further the number of angles which each of these subjects possesses when contemplated by the minds of different investigators. Multiplying the number of categories by the number of angles, one reaches a result which would not seem contemptible even in the field of astronomical mathematics. And, at least theoretically, it is only in the light of some such final figure that we can attempt to map out the whole potential field of historical composition. An indefinite multitude of subjects approached by a still larger multitude of minds must yield a crop of literary compositions which will present an infinite variety of aspect.

Considered thus, the writing of history is a subject that should not be approached save in a mood of pious agnosticism. But as often happens, the practical difficulties of a problem are less acute than those suggested by a theoretical view of it. Having contemplated the more than Minoan labyrinth of historical composition as a whole, let us look around for a thread which, though it will not lead us through every back alley of the maze, may at least bring us out into the daylight. The clew suggested is simply this, that in a high percentage of cases historical essays, pamphlets, and books would be writ ten better than they are at present if their authors would take the trouble to write as well as they can. In other words, the failure of the average historian to write well is due less to invincible ignorance or congenital disability than to laches. He would do much better if he but took the trouble.

Reviewing the whole field of historical literature, it becomes clear that no trouble is wasted which brings the historian up to his highest level as a writer. To dispraise one’s predecessors is very unpleasant, and it is irksome even to seem to dispraise them. Yet the paucity of great historians is an inescapable fact—whether the matter be considered absolutely or relatively. For almost two thousand five hundred years the writing of histories has been a common practice, and has assumed that wide variety of forms to which reference has been made already. On the whole, the histories which deal with politics and war have flourished the most riotously; but no broad domain of human effort has been neglected. Theology, art, literature, science, music, commerce, exploration are no more than a few among the leading categories of man’s activity which have been chronicled in copious detail. There is also that fascinating record of individual achievement which we call biography. Dividing and subdividing, the number of histories seems endless. And yet there have been few great historians.

Buckle was impressed by this fact, for at the very beginning of his History of Civilization he refers to the whole body of historical writing in terms of extreme disparagement. Casting about for a reason which will explain its shortcomings, he first states that almost no one of real creative power—at least no one of the highest mentality—has condescended to write histories. Here he has in mind the monumental intelligences like Kepler and Newton. He does remember that Francis Bacon wrote a history of the reign of Henry VII, but neglects to observe that the eminent Leibnitz stooped to compile the annals of a German principality.

Following Buckle, one must conclude painfully that historians are not equal in mental power to philosophers and physicists; in fact, that they do not rank among the thinkers. Nor is he alone in this opinion. Gibbon, by common consent, is a giant among historians. Yet Sir James Macintosh said that you could snip Gibbon’s mind off a corner of Burke’s without removing enough to be noticeable.

Admitting the infrequency of great historians, there would seem to be a much better explanation of this phenomenon than that offered by Buckle. The reason why histories of the highest class are so few is not necessarily to be discovered in lack of intellectual power among historians. It would be much more accurate to say that no one can be a complete, well-rounded historian without possessing gifts and qualities which are rarely found in combination. By enumerating some of these it may be possible to show the relation which the writing of history holds to the completed work.

That the historian may achieve real eminence, he must possess a mind which is clear enough to seize upon a suitable subject and wide enough to view it in due perspective. The theme chosen must be of considerable proportions, though not so large as to be overwhelming. In dealing with it the historian must possess such a degree of intellectual detachment as will insure fairness; yet he must not be so detached as to become colorless. He must possess a robust and unquenchable sympathy with mankind, without being a sentimentalist. He must have a zeal for his task which will make him willing to scorn delights and live laborious days. Many years he must pass in libraries, being his own pedant before he can put life into his pages. His spirit must be calm, yet eager. And though he be perfect in all these respects, one thing more is necessary. He must know how to write so that the world will read. How this can be achieved it may seem futile to inquire. A very few can do it; the rest fail.

Let us not, however, follow the line of least resistance in assuming that it is futile to inquire whether improvement cannot be made in the writing of history as practised by the many. “It takes two to speak truth,” says Thoreau; “one to speak and one to listen.” For this reason the pre-eminent historian must employ a style which will command a wide audience. It may be thought niggardly or unjust to deny the title of greatness to the historian who, with conspicuous ability, monumental learning, and exemplary fairness, produces an opus that is designed for scholars only. Everything depends on definition. At the same time no argument is needed to demonstrate that those who, besides being learned, can write strongly, must stand higher on the head-roll of select historians than those who are unable to emerge beyond the muniment room.

Sir Walter Raleigh—of Oxford—has left us several apothegms connected with college examinations, in one of which he observes that the king who made all his subjects dukes was an anarchist. Following this precept, the number of leaders in any department of endeavor can be but small, and among historians the few whose works command wide attention throughout the ages survive because they possessed the power to communicate their personality through words. For us the point is that we should not dismiss the matter with a phrase about the miracle of genius. Rather should we note with care how a faculty for expression has given the masters of our art their distinctive place—style proving to be the porro unum necessarium. Not every one who pursues an art can become a master, but it is possible for every one to aim at being an artist rather than an artisan.

It would be a short cut out of the difficulty if one could say with truth that in times past the high mortality among histories has been due to a wilful neglect of the literary vehicle. But no such statement as this could be made with truth if it pretended to cover the whole period during which histories have been written. In a notable percentage of cases much more attention has been paid to the style than to the content—witness so many of the works which were published during the age of rococo and baroque architecture. In part this was a time of genuine erudition, but it also abounded with writers who were chiefly concerned to win reputation with as little fatigue as possible; namely through the help of rhetoric. The lamentable circumstance is that so often the real scholar has been content to collect an excellent mass of building-materials without attempting to use them himself, or in attempting to use them has put forth an effort by no means comparable to the value of his materials. Whether broken down by the toil of research or complacent because he had settled Hoti’s business, he has failed too often to plan his time so that at the end his work would show evidences of design. It is true that there are some great scholars who would find it impossible to write an effective narrative or interpretation, even if they strove to do so; but these constitute a small minority, however important.

One can easily compile, of course, a list of historians who took themselves and their writings very seriously. Thucydides, with his kτήμa ές αΐείis the classical example of the master who aimed high and succeeded. Much lower down on the list is Gregory of Tours, making his deep appeal to the sympathy of later ages when he adjures the future scribe not to tamper with his text—“no, not even though he has all the learning of Martianus!” Centuries later Maximilien de Béthune, Duc de Sully, vindicated the dignity of history with all his might by putting on court dress when he engaged in the composition of those memoirs which he wrote in the second person. Illustrations of this character can be multiplied without impairing the force of the broad statement that over a long period the writing of history has suffered because the truly erudite have taken less pains than they ought to have taken when they set out to communicate the results of their studies. Here, however, we are concerned with the writing of history as a practical matter in our own day. Without attempting further to comment upon the broader or more distant aspects of the subject, let us review some of the conditions which have affected historiography during the past fifty or seventy-five years—that is to say, within recent memory, as historians reckon time.

The older members of our association were taught, in large part, by men imbued with what has often been called the scientific conception of history. Without attempting to define this in exact terms, it may be recalled that during the last quarter of the last century all reputable historians were engaged in clearing away a vast rubbish of ignorance, prejudice, and misrepresentation. To them it seemed that earlier historians had been partisans, and that even where they had been sincere, their methods of investigation were very imperfect. Accordingly, it was a pre-eminent duty to conduct research in the spirit of the biologist, the chemist, and the physicist. One of the most important executives in New York has placed in full view over the entrance to his office a placard which reads: “What are the Facts?” He feels sure that it has saved him a great deal of time Now, forty or fifty years ago all historians of the pure sect were asking this same question to the exclusion of almost every other: “What are the Facts?”

The reason why this query was then so urgent is very manifest, since such a vast mass of inaccuracy had become lodged in the public consciousness during the preceding uncritical period. How urgent the need was can only be realized by those who have taken the trouble to read the polemical literature that extends from Middleton’s Free Inquiry to the days when the Quarterly Review was denouncing “the absurd and shallow doctrines of Niebuhr.” It meant a real struggle to rout the forces of obscurantism and make it possible for the light to be let in.

Remembering this conflict, we can sympathize with the pioneers who strove for enlightenment at the time when criticism was equivalent to heresy. This date, however, is long past, and at present it may not be unwise to consider whether the full triumph of critical and comparative methods does not in its turn disclose fresh conditions. The controlling pur pose, one may contend, under which data should be chosen, combined, and presented, is no less a factor now than it was in those long ages before the net of criticism had swept in everything from Ranofer and Khafre to the Legend of Marcus Whitman. Three generations have elapsed since Ranke began his career with The History of the Romance and German Races; the Ecole des Chartes has been publishing its journal ever since 1839; and it was in 1863 that Droysen opened the ninth volume of the Historische Zeitschrift with his paper on the Elevation of History to the Rank of a Science. The fruits of critical research are abundant and magnificent; yet criticism is not everything here below, and some of its by-products have taken form in tendencies which need to be corrected.

The scientific historian employing the critical method has often worked in the spirit of a sectarian. Reacting strongly from slipshod investigation and special pleading, he took it for his task to discover and set forth the truth. His own temper was to be one of severe impartiality—“the disinterestedness of the dead,” as Lord Acton put it. But being human, he could not deny himself wholly the joys of combat. It became his delight to unmask time-honored myths—winning renown or deriving satisfaction through an enlargement of the borders of knowledge. In a letter to Freeman, Green expresses admiration of Gardiner, and can quite understand why, striving as he does to banish “loose talk,” he should look askance at the influence which the Short History might have in bringing it back again. Not only during the seventies, but during the eighties and nineties was “loose talk” frowned upon by historians of approved nurture. The great objective was to secure results by knocking some one’s eye out; that is to say, by disproving an old view through proving a new one.

Let us grant that this habit of mind is one with which no fault can be found save where it runs to extremes; but throughout the last quarter of the last century the desire to stimulate intensive research got somewhat out of bounds. While labor was lavished upon the work of preparation, the researcher permitted his “results” to be presented on paper with slight regard to proportion and phrasing. For the time being, at least, the equipoise had been upset and the writing of history suffered because it was assumed that whenever the his torian grew animated, interesting, or picturesque, he ran into the grievous sin of talking loosely. Most people have minds which run on a single track. In the present instance it is suggested that the zeal for accuracy and impartiality, which has added so much of late to the value of historical studies, carries with it a danger; for it is a real danger if preoccupation with new facts established or new theories vindicated renders the historian indifferent to the form in which they are presented.

Another mode of approach is to recognize that every one who writes about the past is faced by two tasks—the critical and the synthetic. Coming first in the sequence of effort, the task of criticising materials and sifting data may well prove too engrossing or exhausting if it is not recognized that when this part of the work has been finished an equally grave duty remains. Nothing is easier or more exhilarating than to set up noble standards for other people, but it would be begging the question were one not to urge that the historian, besides collecting facts, must use and shape them. Confessedly, in many cases the scope for artistic treatment will not be great. Historical literature, however else it may be divided, falls naturally into two broad classes—the chronological and the interpretative. The authors of L’Art de Vérifier les Dates thought very little about style as a means of appealing to the judgment or the emotions. It is the same with writers of monographs which are so limited in purpose that they pretend to do nothing but present an accurate catalogue of facts which occurred at certain times and places. For present purposes, books of this character may be dismissed as chronologies rather than histories, though even here there is a clear distinction between good and bad in respect to arrangement and statement. The moment we pass beyond the department of chronology, the historian becomes a writer no less than an investigator. If he evades the responsibility which is implied by this statement, he is condemning himself to sterility. In most cases he labors because he wishes to be useful rather than to amuse himself. And how can he be useful—except within very narrow limits— if he will not take the trouble to write as well as he can?

And there is need to write well when the historian selects a subject which requires real power of thought. One kind of talent is required to collect the data; another kind of talent is required when the story comes to be told, whether as plain narrative or with interpretative comment. So long as the historian is content to keep within the limits of a strict chronological summary, he may not cause disappointment if his style is without color or quality. Here he is dealing in a narrow way with what has been ascertained beyond question—like the date of the battle of Waterloo. But when he mounts to those higher levels where abide the souls of great men, the seeds of great movements, and the mysteries of racial development, he loses contact with what is certain and enters a region where the sole criterion is probability. Hence to enforce his convictions he must become a pleader who depends for his effect upon the arrangement of his brief and the selection of his words. The scientific historian is often afraid of danger the moment he ceases to be colorless. He should be less timid. No one denies to Darwin the title of scientist, and in his autobiography he says that the Origin of Species is one long argument. Likewise the element of argument enters into every historical book which is modelled on large lines. To make his work convincing, shapely, admirable, the historian must let his own mind and nature shine through it—at their best. This he will not and cannot do unless he grasps the fundamental conception that the duty to write well can no more be disregarded than the duty to research well.

In most cases a much higher standard of expression could be reached were it not for perverse neglect. To illustrate this statement, let us consider the specific example which is afforded by the contrast between J. H. Wylie’s History of England under Henry the Fourth and the Ford Lectures on the Council of Constance delivered at Oxford by the same author. This contrast is rendered the more striking by the four pages entitled “L’Envoi” with which the Ford Lectures are brought to a close.

Like Matthew Arnold, J. H. Wylie was an inspector of schools, but here the resemblance would be thought to cease by any one who turned suddenly from Arnold’s Essays to Wylie’s History of England under Henry the Fourth—a work of much learning, but wholly without literary allurement. The significant fact is that having lavished years of effort upon four volumes which are marked by an aggressive baldness of style, Wylie produced on the Council of Constance a little book that scintillates with cleverness. Obviously it is impossible to quote here long passages illustrating the dulness of the work on Henry IV or the liveliness of the Ford Lectures, but attention must be called to the terms in which Wylie comments upon his critics. There have been few wittier valedictories. Wylie’s “L’Envoi” is not long, and it is so germane to the present discussion that no apology need be made for quoting it without abridgment:

“In bringing this course of lectures to a close I may perhaps be allowed to finish with a personal note. So far as I am able to judge, the reason why the University of Oxford has done me the honor to invite me to deliver the course is probably due to the fact that I have spent a great many years of what some would call hard labor in producing one solitary historical book. While many critics have dealt leniently with it, to others it has proved a source of exasperation on account of its over-minuteness and its want of literary style. Both are grave faults in any author who wishes to command popularity, and I can only defend myself by saying that the book in question was purely the work of an amateur, written with the sole aim of securing thoroughness so far as it lay in my power, and that I have to that extent respected my public that I have striven to supply it not with pleasure but with food.

“To begin with the second charge, the want of style. There is no doubt that Literature is Art and Art is Selection, and that the writer who cannot select with nicety is neither an artist nor a litterateur. Yet I am consoled with the knowledge that your great constitutional historian, Bishop Stubbs, once said of his own work that the useful part of it was hard reading and the readable part ‘trifling,’ which would soon ‘go the way of all fireworks.’ But, after all, the style, the art that carries all by storm and wins along the whole line, is a God-given gift. Those who have it cannot fail to make it felt, while those who have it not would do well to make no effort to affect it, remembering that even a DeRougemont ,may be found out at last, for all his gift of imagination. So in the matter of style I can only feel that it must just be left as it is. That which we are, we are, and there is no use in trying to be anything else.

“But on the other horn—of over-minuteness—I am prepared to make a momentary stand. Over-anything is, of course, a fault, and μηδέν άγαν is a rule beyond reproach. But minuteness, if not over-minute, is not a malady from which history-writing has suffered in the past, and I am pleased to think that with all its drawbacks, its day is only just beginning. As knowledge grows, the Weltgeschichte and Histoire Universelle becomes more and more impossible. The effort that was once put forth to range over a continent is now barely sufficient to master the biography of a single home. We all know the old methods of the eighteenth century; character sketches and fancy portraits, Thucydidean in scope and drawn to display the wordy skill of the draughtsman; lofty and often contradictory generalizations, all based upon the same meagre stock of knowledge; a modicum of well-worn facts tricked out in varying degrees of picturesqueness. Indeed, after many years of minute reading, I am almost constrained to say that I know nothing sadder in literature than the way in which old fictions are repeated by favorite authors without any attempt at verification from original sources.

“But whether we like it or not, we have certainly now passed into what has been called ‘the documentary age,’ which was recently forecast as ‘destined to develop learning at the expense of writing, and to make history independent of historians,’ and (shall I add) lecturees independent of lecturers. This may not be a cheering outlook, but it should be remembered that to our forefathers Rymer’s Foedera was a revelation; yet it put fresh life into the treatment of the whole field of English history, and did not in the end destroy the delight of students any more than the discovery of the Assyrian bricks or the Moabite stone, and if we test and prove and spare no pains in reverence for our subject there should be no fear for the result, either in regard to the enjoyment of the students or the progress of the study.

“The Oxford Historical Society was once bravely told that ‘dulness is dreadful,’ but that ‘there are worse things than dulness—worse if that which professes to be history is no history at all.’ And therefore it is something to know from recent pronouncements on the future of historical inquiry that henceforward our backs are to be ruthlessly turned on the old barren generalizations, and that we are to look on no detail as trivial which tends to supplement our scanty knowledge of the past. So if the method of the minute researcher does not yet commend itself as too quixotic to be practicable, he must just be content to take a lowly place for the present, consoled with the knowledge that he sometimes catches out the high-flyer and obtains occasional recognition in some quarter where he least expected it.”

After reading this vindication—and the Ford Lectures as a whole—one can only regret that J. H. Wylie did not display in his four volumes on Henry IV the literary talent which he possessed. He is hoist with his own petard. With respect to writing, his main contention is that “the style, the art that carries all by storm and wins along the whole line, is a God- given gift. Those who have it cannot fail to make it felt, while those who have it not would do well to make no effort to affect it.” But surely it is not a question of extremes, with no middle point between Thucydides and Dryasdust. Doctor Holmes once had an experience with a printer’s devil which led him ever after to refrain from being as funny as he could. But the historian is not relieved from the obligation of writing as well as he can. In Wylie’s case the Ford Lectures prove that it was well within his power to attract readers and hold them. Had he displayed the same quality in his elaborate work on Henry IV, his long labors would have been of far greater utility to others. It is wholly improper for the historian to say that because he cannot write like Thucydides he will not strive to write well.

Public opinion counts for much in these matters, and if historians of eminence believe that something should be done about it, the level of historical writing can and will be raised. There is no short cut to the production of masterpieces, nor will there be until some way is discovered to produce great men. Manifestly the genius takes care of himself. But measured by number, an infinitesimal fraction of the histories published in a given generation bear the marks of genius or of a talent which approaches it. Multitudes of histories are called for and will be written. If attention is concentrated on methods of research and the necessity of producing “results,” these new books are not likely to differ very much from those which have been written during the past forty years. On the other hand, a searching of heart among the guides of opinion might lead to some betterment.

A like subject was discussed long ago by Matthew Arnold in his essay on The Literary Influence of Academies. “How much better,” he exclaims, “is the journeyman work of literature done in France than in England!” The explanation is that through the Academy, France possesses a standard—or, rather, a sense of standard—which is lacking in England. The French do not write merely as the spirit listeth, but with the express recognition of the fact that there is such a thing as form or shapeliness.

Applying this analogy to the present case, there exists throughout the English-speaking world that important force which is exercised through the universities. While their authority is not precisely that of the French Academy, their influence is wide and pervasive. Now with hardly an exception all those who teach history in the leading universities of the United States are members of the American Historical Association. It follows that any effort which had the strong support of the Association would also receive the support of the universities. The Association has felt enough interest in the writing of history to appoint a Committee. It may conclude, after considering the Committee’s report, that nothing can be done beyond the expression of pious aspirations. On the other hand, it may feel moved to attempt some form of concerted action.

Proceeding by elimination, let us consider what scope there is for concerted action. To begin with, no member of the Committee possesses such hardihood as would be required from one who would dare dogmatize to the senior historians. Men fifty years old have learned how to write or they never will learn. Furthermore, they would be justified in taking umbrage at the suggestions offered to them by a committee for their own guidance. Extreme courtesy might prevent them from saying anything aloud, but to themselves they would say: “Go to!—Who are you, to tell us how we should write our books!” But candidates for the degree of Doctor can be addressed with less embarrassment, and it is not impossible that for them the Association can do something practical. Let us assume that there exists a benevolent intention. How can it be made to take form?

In the first place, certain broad conceptions must be enforced upon the consciousness of the younger historians by their seniors—if the seniors feel that they can speak with conviction. Some of these may be enumerated as follows:

  1. In range, historical writings are of the utmost diversity—extending from bald digests of fact to works of generalization which impinge upon metaphysics.
  2. Corresponding to this diversity of subject, there is and must always be a wide variation in treatment. A chronological digest is one thing; an effort to disclose motive or portray events picturesquely is something quite different. And each calls for an appropriate style.
  3. Giving due weight to these categorical distinctions, the fact remains that all too often historians devote far less care to the task of literary presentation than should be devoted to it. While the gift of style is possessed by few, the value of most historical works would be increased if their authors tried seriously to express themselves with impact.
  4. Enthusiasm for research should not be suffered to become overweening. The young researcher, like the young diplomatist, should guard himself against excess of zeal. Obviously, materials must be collected and sifted first of all. But when the facts have been mastered, it still remains to write the thesis or the book‑a task quite different in character, yet so exacting that failure therein minimizes the value to others of the work as a whole.
  5. A due relationship must be observed between the energy devoted to research and the energy devoted to writing. It is a question of maintaining the equipoise. If the young historian is suffered to believe that history is a science only, he becomes the victim of a one-sided conception. A generation ago it was important, indeed indispensable, to point out that loose generalizations are not substitutes for knowledge. Now the problem of synthesis is clamoring for attention, and, as the greater includes the less, synthesis includes writing.

It is true that statements like these, when itemized, look like a string of platitudes. None the less, a platitude is often a neglected truth. If the leaders of opinion in matters relating to history will but stress the importance of the considerations just summarized, there is a strong probability that the younger historians will devote somewhat more attention to writing than they have devoted to it hitherto.

A concluding suggestion is that a course on historiography should be included in the curriculum of every university which has re sources enabling it to conduct advanced work. The subject-matter is such that a course of this character could be made extremely stimulating. Indeed, its influence ought to extend far beyond the domain of style, phrasing, and modelling.

These suggestions are based upon the belief that the American Historical Association can do something for the writing of history, if its members feel that the subject is one which merits and demands attention. It is hardly too much to hope that should a genuine conviction be found to exist among the seniors, means will be discovered to voice it in such wise as to arrest the attention of those historians who are now serving their apprenticeship. Personal influence would accomplish much. Personal influence supported by systematic instruction would accomplish more.

Next section: The Present State of Historical Writing