Tell the Story
During my meeting with my diss advisor last week, it became abundantly clear that my chapter is still all over the place. It opens with an anecdote about the 1796 arrest of a popular 18th-century caricature artist, James Gillray, along with his assistant and publisher. I describe the event for maybe 2 pages and then immediately launch into an analysis of what I think it means. Historians aren’t supposed to do that. Before any discussion of the theoretical and conceptual framework, you have to tell the story. My advisor says that I“m “not yet thinking like an historian…”
See, you’re thinking like an American Studies person, which is all about the theory first. I need the story before you tell me about it.
For any of you non-grad students out there, you’re probably thinking, “duh!” But for those of us who are plowing the fields of language, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of writing. In my last post, I included my word count to date — 39,700 — which amounts to a substantial body of information. However, in that process I lost site of the story. To help me get back on track, Prof. Advisor suggested I stop collecting and read one book over the weekend: Near Andersonville by Peter H. Wood.
Wood is an American history professor at Duke University, specializing in black 20th-century life in the South. In the Fall, I attended a lecture where he spoke about his latest book, Near Andersonville, a three-part essay about the above painting by Winslow Homer. The painting was unknown until it emerged in the 1960s and even after it was donated to the Newark Museum in 1966 (where it remains today), the painting was kept in storage due to its potential for aggravating racial hostilities in Newark. Through a narrative that begins with the provenance of this painting, Wood launches into the history (I almost wrote “discussion”) of Winslow Homer’s life and relationship to the trauma of Civil War, a close reading of the painting in the context of the 1860s and 1960s, and the politics and power of documenting war through the eyes of a slave woman. It’s a quick and fascinating read (124 pages with endnotes) and demonstrates Wood’s narrative strength, a skill lacking in my own writing.
Peter Wood is what my advisor calls a historian’s historian. He doesn’t muck about with theoretical implications or dwell too long on meaning, he simply tells the story. As an American Studies graduate student, I’m trained to describe meaning. I do interdisciplinary work, which means I write and research about stuff I like by pulling methods from different disciplines. I’m deeply invested in cultural and communication studies, so I’m trained to discuss how a medium or message produces and is produced by meaning. I learned the hard way that traditional historians don’t do that. At Wood’s lecture, my advisor introduced me to him and I asked how he saw the production of blackness operating in the painting. He flat out said he didn’t know what I meant by “blackness” and it wasn’t particularly relevant to his book, he was interested simply in the story of the painting. I felt like a dummy, an impostor, and that my question was ludicrous, but why? The next day, Prof. Advisor gave me a signed copy (addressed to me!) of his book. She told me my question was perfect, because it demonstrated the clear difference between the American Studies and History disciplines — History tells the story, American Studies tells you what that story means. This is simplistic, but thinking about it this way helps me to reformulate my writing.
So I think I finally kind of get it, sort of. My next steps are to return to the Gillray arrest in 1796 and report the who, what, when, where, and why. Which begs the question: are historians journalists? Am I the last person to figure this out?