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If you wrote history in the 19th century….

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Russel Nye (1913-1993) provides a glimpse of what was expected of you if you wrote history in the early 19th century in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of George Bancroft (1800-1891). I thought it worth sharing in that some of my readers are themselves authors of history. Those writing in the 19th century of the events leading up to and surrounding the American Civil War would have been aware of and influenced by these expectations.Thomas Carlyle

  • Historians were expected to deal with the history of living men. 

Protocols, state papers, and controversies were not the stuff of history. Here Nye draws on the work of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1891)(right) who felt that history was not simply to be “philosophy teaching by experience” but the history of men “with passions in their stomachs, and the idioms, features and vitalities of men.” (146)

  • History was to be dramatic.

“The historian gave the past form and structure, finding dramatic tension, climax, and resolution in chosen episodes and experience. He used quotations and set speeches as a playwright might – allowing ‘the parties,’ as William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859) (image right) saidPrescott, ‘not only to act but speak for themselves.'” (147) There had to be opposing forces battling against one another to achieve an effect of conflict. On one side might be the forces of liberty and on the other authoritarianism, popular government against absolutism, civilization versus barbarism, etc.

  • Proper historical writing had to have a theme.

A theme bound events together and gave them focus and meaning. This was a quest for the “pervading principle” which was guiding history and flowing beneath the stream of events.

  • The historian was to write in the way of an artistic painter.

His work has to be composed and arranged in and artistic, vivid and aesthetically pleasing way like that of a painting. “Historians habitually used such terms as ‘portrait,’ ‘canvas,’ and ‘sketch'; gave careful attention to composition and arrangement of details; and quite deliberately set up ‘scenes’ and ‘tableaux.'” (147)  [Image below of painting by Clarence Boyd from University of Kentucky Art Museum: Attacking Indians (or Pilgrims Being Attacked by Indians While at Church), ca. 1880]

Attacking Indians (or Pilgrims Being Attacked by Indians While at Church), ca. 1880

  • The historian must create in his work a precise sense of place, time and immediacy.

This task was about reconstructing the values and principles and the intellectual and moral atmosphere  of the times of which a writer wrote. Bancroft called it ‘the spirit of the age, the impalpable but necessary essence’ of a society.” (148)

Historical writing began to change in the latter part of the 19th century but the points above make for some interesting background for discussion that continues today around academic versus popular history and what appeals to the general reader.

George Bancroft, by Russel B. Nye, (New York: Washington Street Press, Inc., 1960), pp 146-148)
Drawing of Thomas Carlyle fro Wikipedia Commons. Another excellent biography of Thomas Carlyle is available here.
Thomas Carlyle- Project Gutenberg eText 13103
From The Project Gutenberg eBook, Great Britain and Her Queen, by Anne E. Keeling
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/13103