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Two Remarkable Historians Help Us Understand The World Long After Their Passing

Jonathan Spence and David McCullough were skilled craftsmen who represented two sides to the work of history and historical writing.

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Within the last year, we have lost two giants of historical writing who will be difficult to replace. On Christmas Day, 2021, Jonathan Spence, the Yale professor and renowned China historian, passed away at his home in Connecticut. On August 7, 2022, David McCullough, one of the most celebrated popular historical writers of the last half-century, passed away at the age of 89. Both were skilled craftsmen, yet they represented two very different sides to the work of history and historical writing, a work that is difficult, profound, necessary, and underappreciated.

Spence was an academic historian and was one of the best. In the field of Chinese history, he was remarkable for the depth and breadth of work he produced. Coming to prominence in the wake of John K. Fairbank’s dominance of the field, Spence showed incredible flexibility as a scholar. History as a discipline went through rather tumultuous changes during his tenure that saw the decline of both “great men” and “grand narrative” histories and a refocus on the small, the local, the individual, and the common.

Spence rode each of these waves. He was still able to produce grand history that was both comprehensive and innovative (“The Search for Modern China” and its accompanying source book). He wrote works of biography from the greatest (“Emperor of China”) to the least (“The Death of Woman Wang,” “The Question of Hu”). He covered an incredible length of history in minute detail, from the Ming Dynasty (“From Ming to Qing,” “Return to Dragon Mountain”) all the way to the present (“Mao Zedong,” “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”). And he wrote history that was simply fun to read, creatively telling stories about figures and events that captured the imagination, all the more so because they were true (“God’s Chinese Son,” “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,” “Treason by the Book”).

I knew Jonathan. He was every bit the consummate historian. His knowledge of China was encyclopedic — almost too much for one man to contain. In his seminar, the most innocuous concept would send him off on a long tangent. You might not think counting time or walls needed an hour of background, but he knew it all and it flowed out of him unabated. One of the most memorable moments of my college career was meeting with him in his office and having him go through copies of imperial edicts from various Qing emperors, showing me the differing styles and grammatical rules that senders were required to adhere to and the varying patterns of notation by which differing emperors responded to these reports and requests. He is simply irreplaceable.

All together, these were the things that made Spence such a good — such an important — historian. He tinkered and added to stories we knew, clarifying them, making them as accurate as possible. But he also dug through libraries and archives in order to unearth new stories, true gems from our collective past, that added to the sum total of what we know about how we have become what we are, as cities, nations, and civilizations.

It is a profoundly important work, because history does not simply present itself to us. It was and is contested, both by those who lived it and by those who have taken upon themselves the task of chronicling it. History is also fractured. We read it as coherent tales of people, times, and places, but for the historian, it appears as pieces, broken and scattered, often hidden, and never simple. It is often like putting together a puzzle where you don’t know how many pieces there are or even what the final picture is meant to look like. And though history may never resolve — coming together into a final, full, and complete picture — we grow through its unfolding.

McCullough Made History Accessible

I had much less direct experience with McCullough — neither knowing him nor reading much of him. But his fingerprints are everywhere in my father’s library. Few books stuck out as much as “Truman” on the shelf, and I believe it helped make my dad not just a Carter, but a Truman Democrat. Soon after, it was joined by others from McCullough’s oeuvre: “John Adams,” “1776,” “The Path Between the Seas,” and I added “The Wright Brothers” myself.

McCullough represents a very different type of historian. We often call them historical writers or popular historians in order to distinguish the type of work they do. They typically are not producers of history in the way that academic historians are. Though they are denizens of the library, they are less likely to frequent the archives. Yet that is not to denigrate their work. Popular historians are invaluable in how they make history popular.

It is a sad fact that much academic history can be unreadable. It conforms to academic standards and is attempting to realize the goals of the field and not those of the publishing house. Narrative often goes by the wayside. Chapter after chapter may be filled with detail that is coveted by the specialist but bogs down and bores the casual reader. And because the scope of history is so immense, many theses, articles, books, and monographs are laser-focused on specific time periods (decades, not centuries) and very specific places (regions, counties, or even just single cities). To assume that any general reader would even attempt to work through let alone be able to fully assimilate so much information is folly. Few have the time. Worse, academics are regularly terrible writers (a curse that goes far beyond historians).

McCullough and those like him (Barbara Tuchman, John Toland, etc.) make history accessible. They gather the best work of the best historians, distill it, and present it in a way that reads like a story we want to hear. Not that it simply plays to our biases, but more that it engages our sensibilities. Reading something like McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” is not only informative, it is enjoyable. One reads such books for the fun of it, for the joy of the experience. And if they don’t tell us anything new from the perspective of the field, they are still significant in that they carry the stories beyond what are often walls too high for many of us.

Contributing to Remembering

If we did not have our Spences, far too many stories would remain buried and may even pass beyond knowledge. If we did not have our McCulloughs, those stories may simply take up space in library stacks far from general interest or attention. Yet, even with both, we face the crushing weight of our ignorance.

I remember once standing in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University (one of dozens on the university grounds) and thinking how no one could possibly read even a fraction of the books it housed, let alone know them well. I had a similar feeling reading through Crossways’ catalog (again, one of dozens of Christian publishers) and wondering who was possibly reading all these books and why they were being written.

That is neither to denigrate Sterling Memorial Library nor Crossways. I could have simply picked Amazon or Book Depository to make the same point, which is that drawing from our accumulating knowledge — trying to build up a comprehensive conception of the true — is like drinking from the proverbial firehose. We may swallow something, but we might not be better for it.

The solution does not seem to be adding one’s voice for the sake of having a voice. The volume is already loud and the frequencies crowded. Too many thoughts have been better stated and then forgotten, and I do not need to contribute to that forgetting. Instead, I could contribute to remembering.

One can at best hope to understand one’s own corner of accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and experience and to try to transmit it well — transmit it so that those who follow can build off your work and not have to redo or undo it. It is a generational task at the best of times. But that work must be done, or we have no hope of truly understanding our place in the world, what problems we are facing, or where our challenges and triumphs originate. Nor will we have the wisdom to carry forward institutions that have value or to let perish those that have none. History did not begin yesterday; it did not begin in 2016 or 2008 or 1989 or 1945. History is long, complicated, deep, and dense. We ignore it at our peril. To even underestimate it is to cause ourselves grievous harm. So we must be about the serious work of learning the stories that have made us and upholding our part in carrying them forward.


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