Thursday, November 24, 2011

Problem #11: Writing Style

For our assignment this week, Dr. Petrik asked each of us to select a passage of historical writing we "believe represents the finest writing in your experience...[k]eep in mind that being a good historian does not necessarily mean that the author is a good stylist. What you're interested in is stylistic excellence."

My area of interest is American history, particularly the 19th century; my scope of inquiry tends to be broad rather than deep, but I do prefer to read works which are, at the least, informed by social, cultural, and economic history. I certainly have interest in political, intellectual, and military histories as well, but I am always interested in the texture and feel of life as it was lived in the past.

John Julius Norwich (his actual name is John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich) is a British aristrocrat who resigned a successful career in the British Foreign Service to devote himself to being a writer. Since then, he has focused primarily on the Mediterranean world of late antiquity through the Middle Ages. He writes works of popular narrative history, and he is almost soley concerned with politics, war, and just enough intellectual and (high-) cultural history to know what the ruling classes cared about in between court intrigues and military campaigns. He has the sort of broad, classically-grounded education you would expect of a well-born, upper-class Brit who went to Oxford and inherited a seat in the House of Lords; which is to say, he is fluent in several languages, is well-read, and knows not a thing about modern historigraphical trends. He is, by his own account, a shallow man who "has not discovered a single new historical fact in my life". If I were looking for a role model for my own quest to become a serious historian, it's possible I could not do worse than John Julius Norwich.

But while my main area of interest is the United States, like just about anybody who has chosen History as a field of study, I have a healthy level of curiosity about many different eras and places other than my formal area of study. As a kid, I was always curious about the Byzantine Empire, if only because you heard so little about it. What little European History I was exposed to was obviously mostly concerned with Western Civilization; and if there's one thing Byzantium wasn't, it wasn't "Western."

Quite a few years ago, I finally scratched the itch to read a few works specifically about the Byzantines; first, I read Walter Treadgold's excellent A History of the Byzantine State and Society, which is frankly superior to Norwich's book as a work of history. But I didn't know that; all I knew was that I wanted to read at least one more work on the empire. The library I was using also had Norwich's A Short History of Byzantium, which is a brief and very condensed version of his three-volume history. Believing that abridgements are for wimps, I went out of my way to get all three volumes of the original "Byzantium" trilogy: The Early Centuries, The Apogee, and The Decline and Fall.

1200 pages later, I had learned very little--other than a deluge of names and dates I forgot nearly as soon as I read them--which I didn't already know, but boy did I have a great time rehashing the sometimes epic, often tragicomic, and occasionally quite moving story of this oft-maligned, rarely-mourned theocratic remnant of the classical age. Norwich may be a poor historian, but he's a first-rate storyteller.

And this history is a story; this is "narrative" history with a capital 'N'.
The upper right-hand corner of every odd-numbered page in the trilogy, save the first pages of chapters, has the calendar year being covered on that page. The trilogy is that chronologically straightforward--we begin with Constantine, end with Mehmet II, and it's a temporal straight line between the two.

What makes Norwich's style so effective is that it isn't merely "well-written"; it's perfectly suited to this style of history. Norwich isn't struggling with complex ideas or trying to weave multiple themes together. He is not staking out new or controversial turf. He is not in any discernable dialogue with a larger historigraphical tradition. He is telling a story which he feels is moving and important in its own right. He believes that the narrative flow of events have their own force, and that it is his job to convey details (which, by his own admission, have all been previously unearthed or noted by others) to bring the story to life, and then to get out of its way.

This is all a very long-winded of saying that, out of context, the passage I have selected might not seem very impressive. That is because its power largely comes from the over one-thousand pages preceding it.

Here are the final two paragraphs from the penultimate chapter (not counting the Epilogue) of volume 3 of the trilogy ("The Decline and Fall"), discussing the death and legacy of the second-to-last Emporer of the by-then doomed empire (the year is 1448; Constantinople would fall in five short years to the suprise of no one). There are many scenes and moments from this trilogy I still remember vividly years after reading it, but this passage is as good as any of them:

Eleven days later, on 31 October 1448, John VIII died in Constantinople. Though he was only fifty-six, the disappoinments of the past few years had aged him prematurely and left him a sad and broken man. After Varna and Kosovo there could be no more Crusades; few people anywhere in Europe now believed that the Empire could be saved from the infidel, and there were by now a good many, at least in the Latin world, who seriously doubted whether it was worth saving. Of all the Byzantine Emperors John is best known in appearance, thanks to his portrait in the famous fresco of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli that adorns the chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence. But he hardly merited his posthumous celebrity. Manuel II had remarked on his deathbed that the Empire needed not a great basieus but a good manager; it has been rightly observed that John was neither. He possessed neither the ability of his father nor the charismatic qualities of his brother. Much of his reign was spent, in defiance of Manuel's wise advice, in the pursuance of a policy which could never conceivably have succeeded; as a result he sacrificed his Church's independence, forfeited his own popularity and ultimately brought about only a miserable campaign that did far more harm than good.

Yet we must not be too hard on John VIII. He did his best, and worked diligently for what he believed to be right. Besides, the situation that he inherited was already past all hope; in such circumstances, virtually anything that he had attempted would have been doomed to failure. And perhaps it was just as well. Byzantium, devoured from within, threatened from without, scarcely capable any longer of independent action, reduced now to an almost invisible dot on the map of Europe, needed--more, probably, than any once-great nation has ever needed--the coup de grace. It had been a long time coming. Now, finally, it was at hand.

This is beautiful writing; elegant and sensitive, and attuned to the subject at hand. I hope that this blog post has paid adequate homage to Norwich's prose. I have tried to mimic his approach throughout this post--the use of semicolons, obviously although I must acknowledge that the overuse of that particular punctuation is a vice of mine, independent of this assignment. I have also tried to capture a little of the spirit of Norwich's style, along with the long paragraphs and sentences which avoid jargon and jarring asides. I hope I have succeeded at least a little bit. This is a style based more on "feel" and awareness of what preceeds it and what is behind it, than of any particular stylistic approach to grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. But in the spirit of slavish imitation--and in the spirit of giving due to an old-fashioned style of narrative history that is so clearly inadequate in so many ways, but which still has its own particular, even charming, merits, here it goes:

Yet we must not be too hard on John Julius Norwich. His approach is not that of the trained historian, but it is the work of a man of his time, place, and circumstance. The situation into which he was born was deeply rooted and perhaps all encompassing; in such circumstances, virtually anything he attempted would have been certain to bear the clear marks of his class and his privilege. And perhaps it is just as well. The historical profession, ever more crowded with works of academic rigor, atomized into ever more finely delineated subfields, reduced in the public mind to little more than a Trivial Pursuit category, needs—more, probably, than any still-crucial field of study ever needed—the storyteller’s touch. It has been too long missed. Here, at least, we see it again.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Problem #10 [#9 was waived]: Historical Theory

In the book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White tells the stirring, epic, heroic saga of spanning and connecting the North American continent by rail; minus the "stirring, epic, heroic" part. In place of the standard narrative, he tells a story in which the primary ingredients are base greed, stunning incompetence, and maybe what's worse of all--the sheer superfluousness of it all. This is the story of something which didn't need doing, being done badly by people who didn't know how to do it.

The larger theme of White's book, that the transcontinentals were simply unnecessary and served no positive economic purpose other than to make a handful of well-connected and unscrupulous businessmen very rich, is served by five distinct theories, which he lays out in the Introduction. Briefly stated, they are:

1) The transcontinental railroads had a strong relationship with the newly powerful and financially lucrative central states of the three large North American polities;
2) The standard historical claim that railroads collapsed time and space is too pat and ignores the reality that it did so unevenly and without rational, equitable, or transparent criteria.
3) The railroad corporations which built the transcontinentals fell far short of living up to the ideal of being rationalizing, standardizing institutions. Laughably short, in many cases.
4) The antimonopolist movements which came to oppose or at least challenge the uncontested power of the transcontinentals weren't well-intentioned but doomed antimodern Luddites, but rather thoroughly modern participants in the market economy who wanted the institutions of capitalist agriculture to work in a fair manner.
5) The men who ran the transcontinentals were neither enlightened entreprenuers who created a beneficial infrastructure for the greater good, nor were the they ruthlessly efficient, "creatively destructive" robber barons who ulimately created an efficient and effective national network even as they crushed unfortunate bystanders in the process; rather, they were bumbling fools who somehow managed to get very rich while wasting enormous resources creating rail networks which were both unnecessary and ultimatey untenable.

White weaves these theories throughout his text deftly, and with a great deal of support from primary documents such as letters, diaries, financial reports (a daunting task, as these were often inscrutible even to the men who created them), news reports, government documents, schedules, and so forth.

For example, he illustrated the close connection between American transcontinentals and the post-Civil War Federal government by tracing the importance of federal legislators in gaining favorable land grants and access to international capital; Leland Stanford was a Senator, for that matter. White points out that many of these men had been involved in the Union war effort; their approach to building the railroads was heavily influenced by their experiences harnassing the power of the federal government for national ends, with industrial and expensive means. Their worldview had been shaped by their war experiences, and their belief in govenment-driven, centrally-directed endeavors was as well.

Furthermore, consider how White uses both train schedules and internal memos, as well as copious economic data, to show how the oft-heralded ability of the railroads to eliminate barriers of time and distance was not a uniform or democratic process in practice; local markets were subject to widely divergent rate schedules, and competing transportation options, such as steamships in the San Fernando Valley, were artificially squeezed out of the market, to the detriment of local producers.

Railroaded is a compelling read; an enjoyably cantankerous refutation of a sepia-toned, myth-encrusted narrative celebrating rugged individualism, enlightened entreprenuerialism, and visionary enterprise. White's contrarian chronicle sets out to tip over some sizable edifices, but he has a strong theoretical foundation to give his endlessly prying documentary evidence plenty of leverage.