Continued from yesterday.
Image: A lot of history makes its way into your new book Wearing God, especially American history. Could you talk about what you think makes a good history book, the kind you like to read?
LW: Two things come to mind, and they don’t always show up in the same book. Some historical episodes lend themselves to almost novelistic writing, and in the last twenty-five years there has been a lot of interest among historians in taking craft seriously, experimenting with narrative form. You see it in writers like John Demos and Simon Schama.
That said, there are plenty of excellent, interesting history books that aren’t so much narratively interesting as they are interesting because of the argument they make or the evidence they’ve uncovered. I have always enjoyed so-called microhistories, where instead of writing a monograph about crime in early America, someone writes a case study of one infanticide in seventeenth-century Braunschweig.
I often enjoy this kind of history the way I enjoy a short story or novel. A favorite of mine is A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which is essentially an exegesis of the diary of a midwife on the frontier of Maine at the turn of the nineteenth century. Ulrich’s book turned out to be quite helpful when, in writing Wearing God, I turned my attention to the Hebrew Bible’s likening God to a midwife. [Read more...]