In an essay called “Labelling the Historians” from the April 5, 1917 issue of The Dial, Carl Becker took up the issue of style in history-writing:
any style worth attention cannot be separated from the matter of which it is, in the measure of its excellence, merely the most appropriate form. The very word “style” does incredible harm, since it brings with it, from common usage, connotations that are inapplicable to literary discourse. Style? Stylish dress, stylish woman. Every one knows what a stylish woman is—a woman attractively dressed, a woman with an air, a manner. How then can a writer “have style” unless he has a manner, unless his writing is, in some sense, stylish? Writers who know their business instinctively shudder when the undiscriminating speak of style as if it were something external, something to be put on or taken off at will—a kind of rich, bespangled cloak in which any, even the most emaciated and unprepossessing, body of thought can readily be dressed up and made presentable. One thing only concerns the writer, and that is to find an arrangement of words that will fully and exactly convey the thought or feeling which he wishes to convey. In so far as the form (arrangement of words) is determined by some conventional notion of good writing, rather than by the nature of the thought and feeling to be expressed, it is bad form, bad style—in short, it is “style.”
The context of this excursus is in fact a rather backhanded defense of George Bancroft, insisting, essentially, that Becker’s contemporaries have improperly excused themselves from judging Bancroft fairly by carping about the opulence of his style rather than attending to the quality of his research. But Becker’s own frustrations with the dangers of having a famous style are barely and rather indifferently suppressed here. Many of Becker’s publications—such as a tribute to Frederick Jackson Turner in 1910—had garnered him great praise… but primarily for his style, and not for his ideas. Senior historians—even, richly, Henry Adams—began to chide him indirectly for the trap he was setting himself: “if I were he, I should be a little afraid of indulging so freely my fancy for humor.” William A. Dunning made the point more pertly, snapping, “If you are not careful you will make a reputation as an epigrammist,” and sniffed that Becker seemed content to be “a producer of literature… perhaps that category is what you are seeking to qualify for.”
The spring of 1917 was an odd time, though, for Becker to be bristling about his credentials as a bona fide historian: he was on his way from a lengthy Midwestern sojourn in Kansas and Minnesota to the Ivy League via a call to Cornell. Twenty-five years space, an AHA presidency, and the attainment of a permanent legacy as an Ithaca fixture, though, would mellow any remaining self-doubts, and in 1942 Becker repeated much the same sentiments in a later essay, derived from a talk given at Smith College titled “The Art of Writing.” The setting—a women’s college—perhaps encouraged him to remove the sour jabs at “stylish women” but otherwise the substance of his remarks on style was unchanged, if even more (and more confidently) apothegmatic:
Good style in writing is like happiness in living—something that comes to you, if it comes at all, only if you are preoccupied with something else: if you deliberately go after it you will probably not get it… The good style is the style that is suited for expressing whatever it is—matter of fact, idea, emotion—that in the particular instance needs to be expressed: “proper words in proper places.”
The advice Becker gives here is impeccable, a true atonement for any inclination to mere ornament, to whatever inclination toward epigrammatism his mentors held him liable for. But this Taylorism of the word—“proper words in proper places”—is incomprehensible as a description of Becker’s prose. How few of Becker’s words remain in place at all, much less seek out a proper place!
It is indisputably true that, for many writers, style is a lacquer, or better yet, a broom, erasing the evidence of tangled steps pacing erratically above a problem.
For Becker, and for many natural stylists, style has nothing to do with what goes on or comes off last; it is not a stratum but a structure; it is not the finished product of thinking but rather thinking’s pulse. It is not always an order but it is a pattern. I often think of Becker’s pattern as paisley.
Becker, from my research in his papers, characteristically evaded praise of his style, probably for the reasons subliminally given here. More frustrating to him, I believe, was the fact that most people—his editors primarily—took the naturalness of his style as an indication that producing prose was second nature to him; he breathed in paragraphs, it seemed.
Turning his research into prose was very difficult for him, and the character of his bibliography shows it: the bulk of his output consists of essays (often reviews) and books formed from an extraordinary number of commissioned lectures (of which The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers was one). But the assumption that one might make—that he was fussy about his style, that he twiddled luxuriantly between synonyms or that he awaited the touch of inspiration to transmogrify a plainspoken, workmanlike first draft—I do not think that was the case. I had limited time in Becker’s papers and did not prioritize looking at the manuscripts and galleys of his books, but I cannot really believe that mere diction or phrasing was the bottleneck in Becker’s process of composition.
Becker’s difficulty in producing prose was not about the challenge of producing good prose but rather about the obstacle of producing a prose that adequately compressed the volume and heterogeneity of his thought. Becker’s prose is good not because it is pretty, though it is, nor because it is clear and light, but because the levity and clarity and quality of it comes from a sort of natural iridescence, a refusal of monochromaticism, a polysemy bred deep in the bone. Words do double duty even when they are not actively being punned or troped upon.
It was a challenge to write this way, but not because it took time to transcribe, to get the words down on paper. It took time, rather, because this iridescent quality comes only from a laborious program of thinking through a question from many sides, of amassing a series of intuitions and correspondences picked up through general and specialized researches, of constantly plunging into pedantic obsessions with trivia and re-summiting the heaps of one’s note cards to take the broadest view one possibly can of a whole subject.
Becker was, to put it in its simplest terms, never content with a two-dimensional arrangement of facts; even the squarest of facts had a subtle curvature, he believed, and he had to account for it in his prose. That is, I think, the enduring pleasure and profit of his style, whether he will accept that word or no.
 Reprinted in Everyman His Own Historian: Essays on History and Politics (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1935), 137.
 Reprinted in Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, edited by Phil L. Snyder (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958) 134.