Thursday, December 3, 2009

Style in History

I'm stealing the title of a Peter Gay book (1974) that I have looked at but not read, a study of the styles of a number of European historians (Gibbon, Burckhardt, etc).  I want to write a bit about the style of some American historians.

This week I have presented a few samples of Pekka Hämäläinen's The Comanche Empire, enough to demonstrate that he's a good, concise professional writer.  The difficulty of the book comes not from its style, but from the huge mass of material and the difficulty of organizing it: two centuries, three borderlands, multiple European nations, a multitude of Indian nations.  Hämäläinen himself succumbs to the problem a time or two.  See the beginning of Chapter 5, where he resorts twice in two pages to the "In this chapter" formulation.  I recognize the symptom, and can diagnose the problem - that section must have been a beast to write.  At some point, he gave up - "Good enough, it works." 

It is good enough, and it does work.  Like I said at the beginning of the week, the book is a triumph.  A generation or more of American history students are going to have to work their way through it.  If I were one of them, the first thing I would do upon re-reading is to make a giant timeline, which would have been a nice addendum to the book.

As I have been writing about The Comanche Empire, I have been reading a different book about a different episode of Native American history, Francis Parkman's The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851).  Parkman's book about the 1763 uprising of the Great Lakes Indians immediately following the French and Indian War was a similarly path-breaking history in its time.  That hardly explains why the book is still in print, as part of the Library of America, along with the rest of Parkman's massive France and England in North America, all seven fat volumes, and God willing I'll read them all.  The Conspiracy of Pontiac was excellent.

Parkman's books are still read for their style.  He is one more author writing under the shadow of Walter Scott, and the somewhat more transparent shade of James Fennimore Cooper.  It for some reason had never occurred to me that Scott's historical novels might influence not only novelists but also historians.  If a novel can include history, why can't history read like a novel?

Well, there are lots of good reasons why it can't, but Parkman really worked on the problem.  Some of the best scenes  in The Conspiracy of Pontiac are at least as exciting as Scott's battle scenes (the siege of Detroit, for example).  Other sections are more traditional - dense but necessary summaries of the political or military background of an event.

Some atmospheric but overwritten, even ridiculous, Parkman:

The wildcat glared from the thicket; the raccoon thrust his furry countenance from the hollow tree, and the opossum swung, head downwards, from the overhanging bough. (Ch. 28)

And some of Parkman at his best, the very last paragraph, on the fate of the murdered Chief Pontiac:

Neither mound nor tablet marked the burial-place of Pontiac.  For a mausoleum, a city [St. Louis] has risen above the forest hero; and the race whom he hated with such burning rancor trample with unceasing footsteps over his forgotten grave. (Ch. 31)

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