U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intimate Space and Novelistic Style in Intellectual History

Guest post by Tom Cutterham
I’m writing this leaning on the fold-down tray in front of me, on a train going north through a mist at 9am. As the refreshment cart bustles by, the smell of coffee briefly overwhelms everything. Two guys in stripy Next jumpers are chatting about last night’s big night out. On my laptop, the keyboard is smaller than my fingers are used to. And I’m wondering if any of this makes a difference, and how. What is determining the way I’m thinking and writing? Do space and place – or more importantly, the intimate spaces that are both transient and obscure – matter?
Let’s say that all this does matter somehow; let’s say that the environments in which we do our living and thinking impact on us in ways almost impossible to recognise; that we’re bodies as well as minds; that people don’t live on text alone. How would a historian capture and express the specificities of her subject’s material, spatial experience? Given that it would be impossible to list and map each atom of physical context (and if it were, where would you put the borders?) what kind of selectivity should the historian employ? Perhaps she would have to write something like how a novelist writes.

Not all novelists are the same, and nor are all historians, obviously. But each group has its disciplinary, professional norms – and there’s room for exchange between them. The starting-place for historians has to be a consideration of just what we’re trying to do with our work. If our aim is to capture and distill a complete and accurate record of the past, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere, with or without new techniques. We’re butting our heads against the paradox of mimesis. If, on the other hand, we’re writing to do something to our own lives and our readers’ lives, to provoke ideological shifts, new and better ways of seeing the world, then we can fruitfully ask: aren’t many novelists doing the same thing, and what can we learn from them?

On their surfaces at least, the way works of history try to persuade their readers is clearly distinct from the way works of fiction do. It’s a disingenuous cliché that historians proceed purely by logical progression from objectively defined evidence. But let’s say that a history book often reads that way. Historical realism involves an apparatus of citation and elaborate quellencritik, which serve to signal fidelity to a rigorous method. We should believe what a historian tells us because she has done the work. A novel’s persuasive capacity relies on patterns of tone and mood. It succeeds when it alters the reader’s subjectivity, makes her think in a different voice. The reader never becomes part of the history, but she must become part of the novel. To do that, she must see and feel its place, space, and time.
It’s precisely that dissolution of distance between reader and text, which is so essential to a novel’s function (and which authors have resisted and inverted in so many interesting ways), that presents ethical considerations to conscientious historians. Disciplinary norms demand that readers be given space to dispassionately assess the merits of an argument. Even phrasing it like that, though, helps unmask this attitude as a holdover from the days of hegemonic objectivity-discourse: of power speaking to ignorance. These ethics were always a sham. Inasmuch as it does so, history persuades where it collapses the author and reader’s subjectivity in spite of – under the cover of – formalised argument.
If we grant that a more honest as well as a more effective way to proceed is to consider ourselves equal participants in a discursive community of persuasion, of negotiated subjectivities, what about a straightforwardly methodological rather than ethical question? Novelistic style may be applicable to certain historical problems, but hardly all of them. Who will write history of the longe duréeand the statistical abstract while we work on our intellectual biographies? I think that objection is mistaken too. One thing historians and novelists always share, as Hayden White long ago showed, is a sophisticated (if unconscious) manipulation of metaphor. The smallest thing may be at the same time the largest. Who thinks Middlemarch is only about its own characters and settings?
The content of history and fiction, to take up another of White’s themes, is indistinguishable from its form. Metaphorical structures are as much a matter of what you write about as how you write about it. So in suggesting that historians take more from novelists, I’m doing more than asking for better writing (whatever that is). Historians can take intimate space and place more seriously, among their many other concerns, if they also learn from the ways novelists portray and integrate them. They can choose to care about these things if they also know how to write about them.
All this is as much as to say, I think historians and novelists share the same question. We share it because it haunts us all: what matters, and why, and how? I’m getting close to my destination, and my back is starting to cramp up from how I’ve been sitting with my laptop. Maybe historians have all long taken these problems and directions into consideration – there are certainly great examples of books that have done so. (1) But then, why does it feel so dangerous to write like this as a graduate student? Is it a privilege for which we have to qualify first?
Historians at all levels of the discipline worry about the distance, always apparently growing, between their work and audiences beyond the academy. Often the prescription is digital or multimedia; equally often, it’s a vacuous call for more stylish writing or a reinvigorated grand narrative. Now, it’s not as if fiction publishing is in any less of a downward curve than history. But if the historians who keep the gates of the discipline want to foster new ways of reaching readers and changing their lives, they should start at the dissertation, the workshop, the viva, and open up the potential for encounters with intimate space and novelistic style.


(1) These are the examples mentioned at the seminar where this paper was under discussion: James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro (Pantheon, 1994); James Brookes, Captives and Cousins (North Carolina, 2001); Jill Lepore, The Name of War (Knopf, 1998); the epilogue to William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (Norton, 1991); Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street (Knopf, 2010); Dan Sharftein, The Invisible Line (Penguin, 2011).

One Thought on this Post

  1. Tom, this is a great reflection.

    I’ve struggled a lot with the boundaries of context in my dissertation, which is a sort of environmental study of ideas. It has involved, for example, trying to identify the locations of writers’ homes relative to each other in antebellum Manhattan. I’m convinced that place and space make it possible to tell a much richer, truer, and (at least on a personal level) more persuasive story, especially about intellectuals who have left smaller bodies of work. What I’ve found is that it’s very difficulty to put together a persuasive argument this way until all the pieces are in place, and then the story seems to make the argument for itself. But it’s a laborious process, and hardly ideal for a time-sensitive dissertation.

    I think it’s helpful to look beyond history and fiction for help, because narrative journalists have thought so much about the problem and done so much practical experimentation. Early on in my graduate work, I picked up a copy of ‘Telling True Stories,’ a collection of essays that includes entries by the likes of Jill Lepore, Isabel Wilkerson, and Adam Hochschild as well as, e.g., Tom Wolfe. I think it’s influenced me as much as anything else I read in grad school.

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