A while back, probably months at this point, I tore a bit of an article out about the artist Ken Price. What struck me was his quote, “A craftsman knows what he’s going to make, and an artist doesn’t know what he’s going to make.”
The craftsman part of the quote stuck with me because I read The Historian’s Toolbox: A Student’s Guide to the Theory and Craft of History as an undergrad. The image of history as a craft has appealed to me since then. Historians hone and perfect historical thinking and writing. Graduate school even functions, in part, like an apprenticeship. Like a finely crafted piece of furniture, history can have a real beauty, even if it is serving a practical function as well.
So if history is a craft, does that mean historians know what they’re going to make before beginning? To a degree. That’s why we write proposals. That’s why I can pitch a general idea of my dissertation before my proposal. We have ideas of what we would like to explore and theories we would like to argue. But sometimes, the history doesn’t cooperate.
Perhaps my favorite part of researching and writing history is the element of discovery. In working on several different research projects, I have found that going through archival sources has drastically altered my argument. During my undergraduate thesis, I ended up completely changing the location of my case study because the new sources I found were just more compelling. The uncertainty of the archive excites my imagination, even when I have an idea of what I want to do. The idea of history as a work of art, an uncertain product waiting to be created, appeals to me.
Unleashing, or at least acknowledging, the artistry of creating history could ultimately increase the popular appeal of historical monographs. History has broad popular appeal and yet, most historian-authored books are lightly read. A columnists’ biography of Calvin Coolidge is currently third on the New York Times’ Nonfiction bestsellers list. I’m sure it’s a great book. But I’m also quite confident that there are more interesting topics being covered by historians right now (Sorry Calvin). The fact that I own a book titled How to Write History that People Want to Read reflects the inability of historians to adequately meet the public’s desire for engaging historical writing.
Whether a craft or an art, historians cannot afford to rely on the existing scholarly structures. University presses are struggling and humanities funding is constantly under fire. But history will always be socially relevant. Historical writing will always have a large audience. The question is, will historians play a central or marginal role?