April 13, 2009

4 BC (a la 1066 AD)

I've got a 200 page first draft called 4 BC (online here) that needs a ton of work. Looking back, it was almost more of an exercise than an actual draft. I was trying to line up the events in a narrative format, in simple grade school english, but with somewhat exhaustive detail. That's writing for two different audiences at once. I don't think it worked. Since then, I've been trying to figure out how to write a book that would appeal to everyone but also provide intriguing arguments worthy of academic attention (maybe in the appendices). I may be getting closer to a solution. (Lord, hear my prayer.)

One model I've found for how to do this might be David Howarth's 1066. While not a professional scholar, his treatment (I am told) gained a permanent place in the larger conversation going on about his topic. If this were Roman History, and if there were a long, sliding scale between works like Ronald Syme's two volume Tacitus and Robert Graves' fictitious I, Claudius - a book like 1066 probably fits somewhere not too far from the exact middle. It's a popular history that nevertheless aspires to high academic standards and perhaps even to stand among related scholarship as a modest if not or perhaps a substantial contribution - albeit not a formal one.

Here are some excerpts from Howarth's Preface that explain what I'm thinking about doing with 4 BC:
"This book is not about the historical importance of the year, it is simply about the tremendous drama [that took place] ... [it] is not meant to be read as a work of scholarship, only as an evocation... but I hope it is accurate enough to satisfy scholars.

"Strictly speaking, every sentence in a story nine centuries old should include the word perhaps: nothing is perfectly certain. But that would be boring, and I have left out the qualification whenever things seem reasonably certain... Sometimes I have made a guess, but not without saying so.

"Better scholars might say I have gone too far in trying to draw the characters of the people of 1066; but I think this is the most enjoyable part of history. ... I think it is possible, using every scrap of information, to make a worth-while portrait of each of the leading actors in the drama. ... I have not tried to hide this blatant prejudice, but I hope my portraits are fair enough to let anyone else disagree with me.
The whole preface is something I read often. His summary critique of biases among the earliest sources is itself very interesting. Obviously, I also like the fact that he's focused on the events of a single Year. For the record, Howarth didn't include a full bibliography or cite any recent scholarship (to 1978) but listed twenty contemporary works from 1050 to 1245, his only ostensible sources.

According to the paperback blurbs, the Boston Globe called it "literate popular history", a dramatic account with a sensible conclusion. And the New Yorker called it "a model of scholarly popular history". Overall, that's extremely impressive, especially if the story is true that it still commands some attention from professional scholars. Seriously, I should hope for so much.

At any rate, my plan for this summer is to blog less and write more. If it's a very good summer, I might just finish this new version of 4 BC. Or maybe something similar, but bigger. I'm not sure just yet. We'll see how it goes.

Watch this space...

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

1. In what ways is Howarths's non-fiction history book like a novel?
2. Do you think the author is biased in his account? Please give 2 clear examples illustrating why or why not.

Bill said...

Hey, nonny, nonny! ;)

Howarth is focused on events and the characters of the people involved. His bias, he admits in the preface, is that his 'portraits' of various characters turned out somewhat tainted by his personal impressions of them - impressions that he implies arose during the research.

Personally, I've never really tried to focus on character like that before now. Up to now, I've wanted to do two different versions. The new idea, to me, is that I might just do one and hit the middle. I hope it's clear that I'm still weighing the pros and cons, and I'd love more feedback on the whole idea.

So, Nonny. If I've answered fairly, do I get to learn your identity? ;)

Anonymous said...

I'm a student who has to respond to those two questions from my professor regarding 1066. I don't do very well with open-ended questions; much better with black-or-white answers. Could you elaborate more specifically to each question? It would help me out tremendously.

Bill said...

Aha. :)

What will help you out, young student, is to do your own homework! ;)

Read the book. :)

Anonymous said...

I know, but you can't blame me for trying! :)

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