Why I Write

I gave a TED talk this morning during the Exeter assembly:  about why and how I write history books.  The video will be up soon on the Exeter Talks website, but here is the script.

Good morning Exeter.  As TJ said, I write history books: biographies of famous Americans.  When Exeter students ask how I do this, I sometimes say that it is like writing a history 333 paper, and then another, and then about fifty more such papers.  I can hear a gasp:  “oh my God, why would ANYONE want to do such a thing?”  I want to talk a bit about WHY before getting to the HOW.

There are different views of history:  some believe that all that matters are immense impersonal forces.  This assembly hall embodies a different view:  that individual men and women matter.  All around you see the portraits of the men and women who have created and changed Exeter:  Edward Harkness, William Saltonstall, Dolores Kendrick, Kendra O’Donnell.  This is my view of history as well:  that individuals matter, that the choices we make change the world.

When I was a student here, I thought that all the important books had been written.  If I wanted to know about Woodrow Wilson, I could go to the library, find a book, or several books, and there it would all be.  I now have almost the opposite view:  that most of the books remain to be written.  Before my book on John Jay, the only decent biography of him was written in 1935.  The book was not only old it was weak in many ways.  Jay needed a new book:  and there are hundreds of important people and topics in history that need new books.

A while back I was in the library, and I opened up this book about Charles Francis Adams.  It starts with an address by Henry Cabot Lodge:

“No man who reflects, certainly no one who gives rein to his imagination, can approach even the slightest attempt to tell the story of a man’s life upon earth, whether it be his own or another’s, without feeling that he is doing so in obedience to one of the overruling impulses, one of the deep-seated instincts of humanity.  He cannot escape the vision of the successive generations of men as they pass by in long procession recounting, each in its turn, the lives and deeds of those who have gone before.”  Lodge talks about how even before there was WRITING there were tales and songs, and those tales were about the lives of men and women of the past.  Lodge continues:  “the biographies, the recorded lives of men, whether brief or copious, whether resting on a few allusions or filling volumes of minute detail, are not only the material of history, but are each and all the picture of a human being, of a human soul, in its short and troublous pilgrimage from the cradle to the grave.  If we look upon them with considerate eyes, there is NOTHING of equal interest and importance in the whole range of the great literature of knowledge.”

Well.  My books are not quite THAT important, but that is why I write:  in obedience to one of the deep-seated instincts of humanity, to tell the life stories of the great dead.

OK, OK, I hear you saying but how do you do it?  What tips do you have as I work on my 333 paper?

Start with the bibliography.  Obviously that is not, at first, a list of books you HAVE read but rather a list of books and sources that you MAY read.  So if you decide to write about Henry Cabot Lodge, you can look at American National Biography, and find a good list of prior books there.  Do not worry too much about proper bibliographical form but LIST them in your bibliography, then figure out where you can find them.  Here at Exeter?  Through interlibrary loan?  Online?  My current bibliography on my current subject, Edwin Stanton, is about forty pages long.

Drill through the secondary sources to the primary sources.  When you are reading a book, look at the notes to see what other books and sources it is based upon.  Add those to your bibliography.  For Lodge, many of his papers are at the Massachusetts Historical Society:  you are not going to get there for a 333 paper.  But Lodge’s letters to and from Theodore Roosevelt, a key source, are printed and right here in two volumes at PEA.

Find sources that other books have NOT used or used much.  The prior biography of Lodge did not make much use of newspapers; we now have electronic access to dozens of newspapers from the time of Lodge’s life; those papers could help one write a different account, perhaps focusing on his various campaigns for elected office.

Take good notes.  I take notes on my laptop, with the date first, so it is easier to put them in chronological order.  One entry in my current Stanton chronology reads:  “6 Mar 1861:  Stanton to Lincoln with cc of papers to nominate Crittenden.  Graves 326 citing AL Papers LC check.”  In other words, in the Graves book, at page 326, I found a citation to a letter from Stanton to Lincoln with the papers to nominate Crittenden to the Supreme Court.  The original letter, I think, is in the online Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress website; but “check” tells me I need to check that.

Organize and edit the chronology.  I do not always, as I am reading, take notes in date order, but I always do soon thereafter.  The chronology enables me to see where there are contradictions:  where different secondary sources assert that the same event was on different days; where they give different interpretations to the same letter.  It also allows me to see connections:  oh, on the same day that Stanton was dealing with the Crittenden nomination he was also dealing with McClellan.  My current chronology for Stanton is over 500 pages, and it is still far from done.

Start writing before you stop researching.  As you start writing the paragraphs and pages, you will find that you have gaps in your research, things you need to look up in the library.  Midway through my Jay book, I realized that I needed more material about what Paris looked like when Jay first arrived there:  back to the library.

Perhaps most important:  tell a story.  I do not mean that you should make it up, that history is just fiction with footnotes.  No:  the story has to be grounded in the facts, in the primary sources, in order to be history.  But good history arranges the facts so that they TELL A STORY, a story that engages the reader in the characters and events.

Think about it this way:  assume that your reader was not a teacher, someone who HAS to read your paper, whether she likes it or not.  Assume your reader is some fickle consumer, who could read your paper or read any of dozens of other papers.  Write so that your reader WANTS to read your paper rather than all those others.

Let me close with another quotation, from Benjamin Franklin.  “If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”