U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History’s Dirty Work: Taming the River

In terms of its narrative logic, my history of the Stanford “canon wars” and their significance in subsequent debates about American higher education currently manifests a sort of triple-quadrilateral structure:  four chapters, four different groups of historical actors, four different arenas of discourse.  This structure was not something I consciously planned.  In fact, to be honest, this was not something I even perceived as an organizing scheme until two days before I was to defend my work. As I said on Twitter, “I’m very excited to have finally discovered the organizing logic of my dissertation. This might come in handy at my defense.” (It did.)

Now while arriving at this ex post facto sense of coherence and order was a bit frustrating (as in, “Oh for pity’s sake — I’m the one who wrote this damn thing and I’m literally the last person to understand how it actually works!”), my guess is that this is not all that uncommon of an experience.  In fact, I think that may be how writing history usually works:  we are making order out of chaos, but the order of our order is only fully visible in retrospect.

The best way to illustrate what I mean is to tell a story – and this story comes from Herodotus, “the father of history.”

At the end of his first book, Herodotus is narrating Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon.  Cyrus is on the way to Babylon, and he comes across a large river that flows into the Tigris.  It’s a mighty river, so deep and swift that it can only be crossed by boats.  One of the sacred horses in Cyrus’s army – sacred to whom I can’t remember – is full of spirit and boldness, and surges forward into the river, and the river sweeps the horse away and drowns it.

Cyrus is so outraged at this affront, this sin of the river against his sovereign dignity, or the sovereign dignity of his god, that he calls a halt to the whole advance. And he vows that before he will go another step toward Babylon, he is going to humble that river and break its power, so that even women can walk across it without getting their knees wet.

To do this, he divides his army into two camps, one on either side of the river, and he sets them to work digging channels.  On each side of the river, he has his army dig 180 channels to divert the water’s flow, so that by the time they’re done with this huge civil engineering project, the flow and force of the once mighty and impassable river has been dispersed into 360 shallow streams.  (You can find the story in Persian Wars, I.189).

I think putting together a book-length historical narrative feels and works a little bit like that – because putting a historical narrative together actually means taking “the past” apart.  Creating a narrative requires taming the massive, undifferentiated, overwhelming past, the flow of time with its practically limitless flotsam and jetsam of primary sources and perspectives and ideas and actors and issues.  It means digging channels to divert the flow, isolating one strand of thought, following one debate this way, another idea that way – taming the wild disorder of the past by channeling it through a few manageable, navigable streams of thought small enough, defined enough, to be traversed on foot, with step-by-step analysis.

So I see the work of historical narrative – or at least one phase of it — as the work of digging and channeling:  peeling apart the river of the past, stream by stream, so that it can eventually be comprehended.  But it’s hard to comprehend, it’s hard to see the design of the whole landscape, while you’re doing the digging. In fact, while you’re still in the middle of it all, it’s hard to figure out where the main channel of the river even is.

What you have to do in such a case is decide:  “Into which of these channels that I have dug do I want to stream the other parts of the analysis so that I have a single narrative that flows, that carries us somewhere we need to go?” And once you see where your decision has taken you, then you can better assess the meaning and the merits of the choice.

I have done some of that deciding, some of that reassembling, in the dissertation.  But while I did manage to get myself and my readers from one side of the river to the other, there are some rough spots yet, some cross-currents of thought I need to manage, some wildnesses of argument I need to tame (and maybe, I guess, some dammed-up ideas I need to set free).

The task of putting the river back together — and doing so in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and useful for human ends (beyond partial fulfillment of the requirements for a PhD) – is probably best conceived as a separate engineering project:  turning the dissertation into a book.

That’s gonna mean a lot. more. digging.

Well, why not? I’m already covered head to toe in mud anyhow.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Really enjoyed this piece and it’s very true to my own experience of the creative process of writing history. You only fully know what you’ve been up to when you come to the end of the project.

  2. Dan, thanks for the kind words. Glad to know that, as I suspected, it isn’t just me. This whole experience was a great deal like Looking-Glass Land, where first you hand out all the pieces of the cake, and then you cut the cake into pieces. Similarly, having been through the process, I am now ready to trust it.

    • It’s a dialectical process—between one’s multiple minds about a topic and one’s editors/readers. And it isn’t finished until you abandon it, either by outside force or force of will. – TL

  3. Gentle readers of history have to figure out what the writers were up to when they wrote. Sometimes easy, sometimes takes a bit longer.

  4. Thank you for posting LD. You’ve been like a navigator and field guide for quite a few of us working on graduate scholarship. You have a knack for putting things into contexts that many people can identify with.

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