Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Compelling History

“Ugh, history is SOOOO boring!”

I hear ya, eighth grader! It’s not your fault. The fact is, most history writers suck. They may be brilliant historians but, by and large, they are lousy writers.


I had my angle for my post on FDR plotted out before I wrote it. The site in question was FDR’s home, I felt the need to write about who he was rather than what he did. Yet most of my prior reading was on the latter: FDR and the Depression, FDR vs. the courts, FDR  at war, etc. There’s a lot of interesting reading there, but these isolated issues don’t give a full measure of the man. 

I knew what I needed. I needed to sit down & read a book spanning his whole life. Only that would let me understand FDR himself. But let’s be fair: writing a biography of one of history’s great figures is hard enough, but putting it in one volume while covering it well is damned near impossible. The stories of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Napolean, Gandhi, and FDR can’t adequately be covered in one volume. But I did some scrolling through Amazon’s reviews, and I found a book that had good recommendations. “FDR”, by Jean Edward Smith, might meet my need.

So how does one fit a momentous life into one volume? Well, this is my first complaint about Smith’s effort. He took a monumental, perhaps impossible, writing challenge, and wasted the entire first chapter on FDR’s family ancestry: Roosevelt’s wealthy forebears and Dutch family tree. Right off the bat, the book is as boring as the Book of Numbers! Who begat who, from wence did they come. Madness! Why bother with that stuff? It’s not really relevant. Sure, his upbringing is important (his relationship with his mother, Sarah, is crucial), but all that farfle about how his family emigrated to the U.S. and continually married their cousins? Who cares? It’s eating up valuable pages, and by doing it right up front, it’s setting a horrid tone for the book.

Then there’s Smith’s penchant to retroactively drop in characters. Out of nowhere, Smith will bring in a character who, it turns out, knew FDR since college! But wait, he already wrote about those college years.  Why didn’t he mention this person then? No, he drops him in and talks again about the past to bring us up to speed about this one guy and then gets moving along the main path again. This rubber-banding doesn’t happen too frequently (thank goodness) but when it does, it’s certainly annoying.

But here’s the worst part. Smith ends the book abruptly. “FDR died. The end.” No denouement, no nothing. Just “he’s dead.” Not even a wrap-up, or a summation, or an epilogue. Nothing but bibliography. It’s like, in the end, FDR’s life didn’t have any meaning. In reality he got a tombstone and a monument in Washington, but Jean Smith couldn’t be bothered to write another couple of paragraphs about his funeral train or the eulogy delivered by Winston Churchill. Perhaps he was as tired of writing the book as I was of reading it.


History is A STORY. I love history, and historians love history, because it’s a fascinating story. Tell it like one! FDR’s life had all the hallmarks of a great novel: a man of privilege and bearing with a fairy-tale existence, suddenly struck with adversity. A man who learned, from that adversity, to become a leader of a troubled nation. A man who formed a powerful alliance of capitalists, monarchs, tyrants, egotists and soldiers that would go on to defeat the greatest evil of the 20th century and, when all was said and done,  would still remain as perplexed as the rest of us by that elusive thing known as love. What a story! But, sadly, told rather poorly in this case.

In this day and age, no one can go through their professional life with only one set of skills and hope for success. Doctors are learning to be business managers to succeed in their practices. Business managers are learning about databases in order to target their customers. Computer programmers are learning how to be salespeople so they can garner their next consulting gig. And historians need to learn, too. They need to learn how to write, how to craft a narrative. They need to learn about plot, and dialogue, and character development, and how to engender empathy through prose.

This is not to say historians should fabricate or embellish the story. I’m not suggesting they create Twilight: The Yalta Conference. I am suggesting they learn through their studies what narrative exists in the history that’s real, and use good writing to bring it out and make it interesting.

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American Classics

Edgar Allen Poe is a true American classic. I suspect that Poe is the second most recognized 19th Century American author (behind perennial favorite Mark Twain). Most everyone has heard of Poe through his well-known works like “The Raven”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, and that grade-school reader staple, “The Tell-tale Heart”. Some folks may have read one book by Herman Melville or Louisa May Alcott, and only college-level literature students have read anything by Emerson, Longfellow, or Thoreau, but most of us are familiar with Poe’s work and his influence on mystery and the macabre. I suppose it’s sad that he’s better known than his contemporaries (critically speaking Poe’s works pale in comparison to Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau), but his visceral take on humanity made a huge impact on popular culture. You can trace so many mystery-thrillers directly back to Poe. It’s hard to imagine Hitchcock or Stephen King or even CSI would be here today without his influence.

But a visit to Poe’s old homestead in Philadelphia evokes a different sort of American classic.

The Window © 2009 America In ContextPhiladelphia wasn’t the only city Edgar Allan Poe called “home”.  Never a wealthy man, Poe and his family led a fairly hardscrabble life. They travelled a lot, always trying to find a new opportunity in another city. Consequently, they lived in many places, from Boston to Richmond to New York. The only Poe home that has been preserved is an old, faltering row house north of Independence Park, on the bad side of I-676. Yes, that’s right: the former home of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the premier poets and authors of his time, is a shitty house in a shitty part of town. And I find that terrific.

I visited Poe NHS on a crappy, drizzly day. I spent the prior gorgeous, sunny day strolling Independence NHS, the well-manicured core of touristy Philadelphia, with its horse-drawn carriages and Ben Franklin impersonators. But the day I visited Poe’s House was sodden and sopping. Rain doesn’t bother me, I threw on a raincoat and headed out. Of course, I didn’t realize I’d be walking about a mile into the slums of Philadelphia. Honestly, that part of town isn’t that bad, but I clearly stood out like a sore thumb. I have to admit I was pretty nervous, but I didn’t run into any trouble. In hindsight, I think it was a very appropriate walk. Too many of us, myself included, stick to the “good” parts of America, and daren’t venture into the rougher sections. A brilliant thing about my National Park Site collection is you see virtually all of America, including some slums. You get a pretty complete picture that way, in my opinion.

The Cupboard © 2009 America In ContextBy the time I got to the Poe house I was pretty soaked. I entered and took off my coat, leaving puddles in my wake. A retired couple were there, their Lincoln parked in the lot, water beaded from a fresh waxing. We were just in time for a tour. Our guide (a really sharp and well-versed lady, a credit to the NPS) took us through the outwardly rickety building, and told us of Poe. A troubled man, a restless man, a man who struggled with success (both commercial and in life). A man who always tried to find his way, a man who seemingly lost his mind and eventually died a very mysterious death, yet a man who left us with some of the most beloved works in American literary history.

Poe’s story was intriguing, but what I found more intriguing was the relationship the Poe site and the NPS has with the local residents. Obviously that part of Philadelphia has a typical, urban, African-American population: undereducated, underemployed, living their own hardscrabble lives built on single-parent households, gang warfare, drug abuse, and a collage of government entities that don’t give a crap about them. But the folks at Poe NHS have worked really hard to get in touch with the community. They are constantly hosting children from local schools for tours and storytelling and events, and that ranger clearly loved to do it. There was no pretension or hypocrisy in her voice when she told those stories, even when she was talking to three Whiteys from the ‘Burbs. Her love of her job and the locals was pretty evident, and appreciated. She also pointed out the brilliant mural of Poe on a nearby building, and the fact that it has never been defaced by graffiti in all the years it’s existed. That is a telling factoid and really shows that either Poe’s works unites us on a fundamental level, or that if you respect people, they will respect you back.

The Raven © 2009 America In Context

Poe NHS doesn’t just tell the story of a famous American author, it tells the story of a rough life, a life led by many millions of Americans before and many more millions who came after. Rough living in a rough house in a rough neighborhood, a life lived by more of us than we care to think about. I doubt my tour companions really got the point of Poe NHS. The retired gentleman, who was supposedly making a coffee table book about “homes of great Americans”, clearly missed it when he said “I doubt this house will make my book.” We all didn’t grow up in marble mansions, doofus.

If you want to experience America, you need to experience all of it, including tilting houses in seedy neighborhoods. That is an idea worthy of a coffee table book.

The Mural

[Pics on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly, except for the mural. I didn’t get a good picture of it (crappy photog that I am), so I had to pirate one.]



Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site

Poe Museum (Richmond, Virginia)

Tabula Rasa’s History of Horror

Google map to Poe NHS

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