Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Miserable Prose

Last semester, I started a series of readings courses with a prominent scholar of 17th-century England in preparation for my general exams. At the time, it seemed like a great idea — after all, shouldn't historians of early America know a little something about English history too?

I'm still glad I decided to take this course of action, but I do have one complaint: I have never before encountered such unreadable prose.

The British historians* of this era seem to have forgotten that writing is about more than stringing together phrases that contain facts. Most of the books I am reading for this field are tomes filled with 100-word sentences that recount parliamentary procedure in the dryest possible tone. Oh sure, they get feisty when they're ripping each other to shreds in journal articles, and I won't deny that there are some witty turns of phrase, but there is no storytelling. It makes my little Americanist heart so sad.

Here is the introduction to a journal article I'm reading this evening on Richard Cromwell's relationship with Parliament:
Seeking to bolster the legitimacy of his government, seeking funds to rescue it from the imminent bankruptcy bequeathed by his father the previous September, and hopeful of the national 'healing an settlement' which had forever eluded Oliver, the the young Lord Protector, Richard Cromwell, summoned a Parliament to meet him in January 1659. He was to encounter only frustration, for the political animosities which had driven Oliver to dissolve in haste his second Parliament a year earlier quickly welled up again. The attempt in the second written constitution of the 1650s, the Humble Petition and Advice of 1657, to meld the new and the old, a non-monarchical order and forms of government which otherwise appeared traditional, proved incapable of containing the passions of zealots.
Could you follow that? Even if you could, did it make you want to read another 21 pages?

Here's another sample, this time from the introduction to a chapter in a monograph of 500+ pages:
The extremists of the puritan movement who — unless Field spoke only for himself — had found themselves disarmed and enervated by Grindal’s tolerance had been stung into a renewed militancy by their first taste of Whitgift. None of them was safe from the High Commission, a punitive engine trained with some accuracy on those preachers now known to be subversive. But puritans of Field’s quality responded positively to this challenge. 1584 saw an intensification of conference and propaganda, culminating at the end of the year in a counter-attack launched through the House of Commons, a political campaign without precedence in parliamentary history.
 Is that any way to start a chapter? Who are those characters? What are their politics? How could you possibly read this if you weren't already a specialist in the field?

Writing is about communicating ideas to an audience, not about showing how smart you are. And frankly, if I can't make heads or tails of an author's prose, I do not automatically assume that he is just way smarter than I could ever hope to be. Most of the time, I conclude that he is a piss-poor writer.

There's plenty of bad writing in American historiography, but the historians I know do make efforts at making their writing accessible. Some even shoot for "enjoyable to read."

What's the point, otherwise?

*I recognize that a few of the offenders are, in fact, American. This leads me to believe that the problem stems from the conventions of this historiography, not from national/cultural differences in taste/style. 

Also, I don't mean to imply that my prof is part of the problem. We definitely disagree on many, many issues, but I must give credit where it is due — measured against this crowd, his writing is positively delightful.

1 comment:

Mark DeAngelis said...


When I was doing graduate work in PoliSci, I would occasionally encounter a topic in which it was clear that the writers of the assigned readings wrote in a style that was designed to maintain an exclusive club of readers. They cared not a fig about educating anyone. Their sole purpose was to establish themselves as members of some exclusive club to which others could not gain entry unless deified by an existing member. They wrote for each other, alone. I'm sure that you will encounter much more of it as you proceed. As you noted in your book reviews post, some academics believe it is their job to continually portray themselves as smarter than anyone else. I bet those folks are joys to have in the classroom. (Perhaps this is another argument for maintaining separate research and teaching faculties.)