The Importance of Historiography

Photo Credit: William B. McCullough
Photo Credit: William B. McCullough

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading David McCullough’s 2005 work 1776, and I remarked that I struggled to find my sense of place as I worked through the book. There was not a single map in it, which is puzzling because 1776 is a work of military history. The need for good maps in military history is acute, perhaps even more so than other types of historic scholarship.

I recently completed my reading of 1776, and for the most part I thought it was pretty pedestrian. The book is well-written, and the central argument of the book–that George Washington made many mistakes as a General throughout the 1776 campaign and that his staff deserves more credit for helping to push the Continental Army to victory over the British–was not the argument I was expecting to read before getting into the book, so in that regard, it was a pleasant surprise. However, I struggled to connect with the book and many of its characters, and I rarely found myself asking any questions as I went through. I also noticed that there is no historiography to speak of. McCullough never acknowledges the work of other historians at any point in the book, nor does he engage in any sort of discussion about the varying perspectives historians have held about Washington’s 1776 campaign.

Historiography, for those unfamiliar with the term, essentially means “the history of history.” What have past historians said and written about a given topic? How have historians’ interpretation of a topic changed over time? Where and what are the disagreements between historians, and why are they disagreeing in the first place?

As good history graduate students, we engage in meticulous research, spending hours on end trying to find relevant primary and secondary sources that tie in with our research projects. We then write long papers demonstrating our knowledge of the literature behind our topics, and we face dire consequences if we write term papers/our thesis projects without engaging with the secondary sources. So why doesn’t David McCullough have to engage with the historiography of the particular topics he chooses for his books?

This question is tough to answer, and all I can offer is my opinion. Part of it, I think, is that McCullough is gearing his books towards a general audience, one that does not particularly care about historiography. Many historians have been criticized (and rightly so, oftentimes) for writing boring, monotonous prose that does a better job of confusing and/or putting their audience to sleep than it does giving us a sharper perception of the past. I would surmise that some of these criticisms stem from the fact that historians include historiographical discussions throughout their own narratives, oftentimes in an attempt to show that they understand the development of historical thinking on their particular subject. McCullough has made clear his disdain for writing to an academic audience:

I don’t like to write history as viewed from the mountaintop. If I can’t try to make what happened as real and compelling as a made-up what happened, then I don’t want to write it. And if critics are bothered by it, that’s fine, don’t bother me. What pleases me most is when, on the one hand, somebody educated or well-read praises what I’ve written, and then a guy jumps out of a Brink’s truck on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a sunny morning and tells me he loves my books. I don’t think history ought to be reserved for the high priests of academia.

I agree with the general thrust of this argument. I don’t think history should be reserved for those in academia, and I believe that digital technology has the potential to bridge the gap between academic and general audiences. But after reading 1776, I find myself questioning whether or not leaving out the historiographical argument is appropriate, even if the book is written for a general audience.

Historiography is important for all historians–regardless of the audience they are addressing—because it offers a level of transparency that allows others to see where you are getting your information from. McCullough’s scholarship clearly demonstrates a strong grasp of his primary and secondary sources, but the way his notes are organized makes it very tough for anyone else wanting to do research on the same topic to use his work for their own benefit. It seems to me that even if you are writing for a general audience, acknowledging the works of other historians in your field allows for others to better conduct their own historical work.

In his 1935 work Everyman His Own Historian, Carl Becker eloquently summarized the meaning of history, and many of us still appreciate this summary eighty years later. History, according to Becker, is “an unstable pattern of remembered things redesigned and newly colored to suit the convenience of those who make use of it.” (p.253-254) Indeed, history is an act of creation, an ongoing discussion about the past that is contested by different people with a wide range of perspectives. Gone are the days of historians who write sweeping narratives about the past that attempt to act as quasi-scientific, “definitive” voices of a particular topic. No work of history is ever complete or beyond argument, and for that reason, we need historiography to fill in the gaps and help give us a clearer understanding of how a topic has been studied over time. I greatly respect and admire David McCullough as a historian and as a person, but his work is not above criticism. My fellow classmates and I would fail our history courses if we wrote our scholarship the way McCullough does, and I think more attention to historiography would have made 1776 a better read overall, one with a stronger argument that I could trace to past discussions on the 1776 campaign in historical scholarship over time. Even if McCullough didn’t want to engage in this sort of discussion in the body of his text, he could utilize footnotes to address these arguments, something that fellow Revolutionary Era historian Gordon Wood regularly does with great success.


By the way, if you want to read a great speech by McCullough on the importance of studying history, look here.

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