"Writing History" Seminar: Studying the craft of historical writing

This quarter I’m taking a seminar called “Writing History” with Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China’s Brave New World. The aim of the class (from the syllabus) is to “explore the qualities of historical writing as writing and to see whether doing so can help those taking the class become better, or at least more versatile, authors of pieces about the past.”
Some questions that we are addressing via the readings:

  • How do those writing about the past convey what they have learned and the arguments they want to make?
  • What rhetorical devices do they use to try to enlighten, capture the attention of, provoke, persuade, or even amuse their reader?
  • Why do we think of some academic historians as especially good stylists or practitioners of the craft of historical writing?
  • What place, if any, should there be in non-fiction historical writing for techniques and approaches more often associated with one or another genre of fiction?
  • Why do some book reviews stick with us while others are immediately forgettable?

Below are the texts that we’re reading for the seminar (with hyperlinks). The books were all paired with relevant readings on the class syllabus. However, for ease of posting here, I’ve disrupted the connections and chronology. Many apologies to Jeff in this regard.

It’s my hope that this list, and other material at the Making History site, will be a catalyst for future classes on the craft of writing history, particularly experimental history:


Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre
Vanessa Schwartz’ Spectacular Realities
Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City
Mary Beard’s The Parthenon
Natalie Z. Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre
Jonathan Spence’s The Death of Woman Wang
Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights
Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian
Perry Anderson’s Spectrum


Urban History, “Icons” issue multimedia companion
Mike Davis’ “The Flames of New York”
Jane Kamensky’s “Our Buildings, Our Selves
Laura Mitchell’s “Beyond Tense: Encouraging Historians to Think Hard about Writing and Reading
Martha Hodes’ “A House in Vermont, a Caribbean Beach: Beckoned by landscapes beyond the archive
Jon Wiener’s “The Weatherman’s Temptation
Mary Beard’s “A Don’s Life” blogposts
Hanchao Lu’s “The Art of History: A Conversation with Jonathan Spence
Greg Grandin’s “Toward a Global New Deal
Jill Lepore’s “No More Kings
Martha Nussbaum’s “Body of the Nation
Pankaj Mishra’s “Impasse in India

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