Scholars Talk Writing: Louis P. Masur

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I met Louis P. Masur in 1988, just before his first bookRites of Execution, was published by Oxford University Press, where I was then an acquisitions editor. We hung out at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Reno, Nev., and he taught me how to play blackjack. Let’s just say he was very, very good at the game. The skills required to be an excellent card player seem to be useful for academics: an ability to keep track of information, a mind for pattern recognition, and a willingness to take calculated risks.

Since then, Masur, a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University, has written books pursuing his interest in 19th-century American history and literature and 20th-century (and beyond) popular culture. His most recent book, published by Oxford in September, is The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America.

Nearly 20 years ago you wrote an essay in The Chronicle on “What It Will Take to Turn Historians Into Writers.” What were you arguing back then?

Masur: I was urging scholars to focus on the craft of writing and to take prose as seriously as they take doing research and making historical arguments. Craft and storytelling can reach people in different ways than the presentation of research and scholarly argumentation.

It had been 10 years since Simon Schama employed fiction in Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) — his lyrical meditation on historical truth, on how we ever know or narrate what happened. The profession survived his heresy, but I came away more committed than ever to storytelling and thinking about how the techniques and tools of fiction might be applied to nonfiction writing, just as so many novelists had used the tools of historical research to write works of the imagination that seemed true to the past.

What has changed since then about how historians write, and what remains the same?

Masur: While it has not flourished to the extent that I had hoped, an interest in the art of writing history has a small but vibrant following in the academy. Aaron Sachs and John Demos’s newly published Artful History: A Practical Anthology gathers some of those writers and includes pieces by, among others, Wendy Warren, Stephen Berry, Saidiya Hartman, and Jonathan Holloway, who is now president at Rutgers, where I teach.

And for the last dozen years, James Goodman, who also has an essay in that collection, has edited a special issue of Rethinking History devoted to history as creative writing. It includes the work not only of academics but also graduate students and undergraduates, who demonstrate that some of the most exciting writing is coming from those who are not yet professionalized.

What remains the same for me is what I quoted in that 2001 Chronicle piece — Shelby Foote’s observation, expressed in a letter to the novelist Walker Percy, that “most people think mistakenly that writers are people who have something to tell them. Nothing I think could be wronger. If I knew what I wanted to say I wouldn’t write at all. What for? Why do it if you already know the answers? Writing is the search for the answers, and the answer is in the form, the method of telling, the exploration of self, which is our only clew to reality.”

Not everyone in the profession should feel compelled to become a writer, and I admire academics who produce scholarship aimed at those in their field. At the same time, the profession at large has seldom valued the art of nonfiction. For graduate students, in particular, it has never been more important to learn how to write for a broader audience. Many future jobs for them may be in public history, and translating specialized knowledge for nonspecialists is a craft worth studying. That means having graduate students write not only scholarly, historiographic research papers but also editorials and essays.

What other skills learned in graduate school are transferable to nonacademic jobs?

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Masur: Learning how to do research is an indispensable tool that is transferable across many endeavors, whether working in museums, law firms, or record stores. Most significant is what undergraduates gain who have the courage at this moment to major in the humanities: They learn how to think critically.

I once spoke with a vice president at Goldman Sachs who asked me about American studies. I told him it was the interdisciplinary study of American culture with an emphasis on critical reading, writing, and thinking. He said he longed for more job applicants with that set of skills because they can always learn economics, but not how to think. Although I would not suggest pursuing a doctoral degree in history as a path to wealth, some of the skills are transferable to Wall Street.

What should graduate students be reading now if they want to produce good history?

Masur: It all depends on what we mean by good history. In my 2001 essay, I railed against the tension in our field between historiography — contributing to scholarship through thesis-driven history that exists primarily to argue with other historians — and good writing. It’s possible to resolve that tension through craft, but scholars are reluctant to deviate from the narrative forms with which they (and their faculty advisers) are comfortable.

I would have graduate students read the work of journalists and nonprofessional historians, and discuss the choices they make in how to tell a story — writers such as Candice Millard, Isabel Wilkerson, Rick Atkinson, Hampton Sides, S.C. Gwynne, and others. These writers set the scene, they appreciate the telling detail and the pitch-perfect quote, they devise structures for how to tell a story that often defy strict chronology, and they immerse readers in the times.

Graduate students should also read fiction, especially those novels that contemplate the problems of storytelling and historical truth. I’ll never forget encountering a 1989 essay by Julian Barnes in The New Yorker called “Shipwreck,” and thinking it was the best work of nonfiction I had ever read. I then discovered it was a chapter from his novel, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. I was astonished. Someone once said the only difference between historians and novelists was that historians found facts whereas novelists invented them.

In graduate school I learned how to find facts, but the profession only wanted them presented in a certain way. My idea of good history writing rejected that. It meant not writing for the smartest people in your field, but for a general audience. It meant thinking hard about storytelling.

Going back to Schama and speculative history, we’re living in an age when facts are now often “facts.” What do you, as a historian, make of the ways we think about “truthiness”?

Masur: Your question deftly slides from facts to truths. Facts, Thoreau said, may one day flower into truths, but facts themselves stand on their own and to label a lie a fact (or suggest the existence of “alternative facts”) makes it no less false.

The assault on facts in recent years — the relentless lies, the mangled syntax, even a disregard of spelling — all speak to the ways in which facts for some have been supplanted by feelings and desires. This is not new, and debates over objectivity and empiricism go back to Plato and Aristotle. But as many writers have pointed out, this is part of the playbook of authoritarian regimes.

What about historical fiction or movies based on actual events? Is there a danger here in making us think we “know” what happened?

Masur: Film, plays, novels — no matter how much based on historical events — are works of the imagination, and good art will make you believe this is how it was. But we can never know how it was. What we can distinguish are facts from interpretations.

Take, for example, Spielberg’s film on Lincoln, which I wrote about in these pages. The filmmaker took care to recreate Lincoln’s office as accurately as possible, yet for some reason hung the wrong portrait — William Henry Harrison instead of Andrew Jackson. That’s an error of fact that historians should correct. When Lincoln slaps Robert in the film, I squirmed because I do not believe he ever would have done that. That for me is an error of interpretation. But ultimately, whether in fiction or film, artfulness reaches people and gets them to engage in important historical questions.

A common academic dis is to call something a “slim volume.” You write short. Talk about that?

Masur: Unfortunately, publishers and readers associate length with definitiveness, or something like that. I recently published a one-volume history of America, and I barely reached 300 pages. A lot of that is temperament — I’m a less-is-more person in all aspects of my life. But it is also about craft. I work with my students all the time to eliminate the passive voice, abandon their love of adverbs, polish transition sentences. Writing short is a lot harder than writing long. Pascal’s oft-quoted aphorism, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time,” is spot on.

Can you say what you think makes good writing good?

Masur: There is no one formula for good writing. Jill Lepore and Sarah Vowell, for example, have very different voices and styles, yet both are superb nonfiction writers. One of my favorite historians was Edmund Morgan, whose prose was clear, direct, active, and unembellished. Asked who he wrote for, he said, “intelligent Martians.” Good nonfiction writing treats its readers as if they are smart, yet know little about the topic.

Beyond reading good writing, how do you help people write better?

Masur: I tell them to write every day. I tell them that 500 words a day, five days a week, is 2,500 words a week. That’s a book manuscript in a year. I tell them to try to finish a writing session with some idea of where they want to start the next day.

I quote Annie Dillard from The Writing Life: “On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away.” I explain that the first few times you think you are done, you are not.

Finally, I recite A.J. Liebling: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”

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