In commissioning this new feature, editorial fellow Rachel Moss asked contributors: how can we radically re-imagine the writing of history? Over the next few weeks, our contributors reply with creative new methods, sources and forms that they are using to reshape what history writing can look like. This first instalment is from Will Pooley, on Radical Grammar.
Writing radical histories begins with grammar itself.
In her recent memoir about her relationship with the History Workshop Journal founder Raphael Samuel, Alison Light describes how the very structure of Samuel’s sentences expressed his attitude to history: ‘ever capacious… a form of hoarding, encompassing the thick detail of the past’.
Do we talk enough about sentence structure, and other grammatical nuts and bolts, the possibilities of point of view, tense, and voice? Do we we spend enough time reading historians for how they write? Not their methods, or their arguments, but simply how they put a sentence together. What does radical historical writing look like, up close?
There can be no how-to guide of radical grammar. For Samuel, and for Light herself, ‘ever capacious’ sentences, like this alliterative and appropriately ramshackle description of the toilet in their shared home:
It was entered via a pair of narrow shuttered doors of the kind swung upon by swaggering cowboys in saloons, recoiling viciously on the visitant, who needed to edge in sideways. A splendid Edwardian varnished oak seat, a top cistern with ball-and-chain mechanism and a very satisfying flush were the reward.
(Every writer knows that second sentence should start with a subject and a verb. It’s the very first tool in Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: ‘Begin sentences with subjects and verbs’. Talk about delayed gratification.)
Not just capacious sentences. Also the staccato, the interrupted, the blunt.
‘And play I did,’ writes Light.
‘So I experimented.’
The very grammar of her sentences is interrupted in a section describing teenage romance:
There was dancing and smooching – yes, all that – and listening to our LPs together, and feeling an erection harden under grey serge school trousers – yes, yes, all that – but always it was the talking that I craved.
Words strain at the imposition of the sentence, like Carolyn Steedman’s unruly ellipses:
To want to go to the Archive may be a specialist and minority desire (only a Historian’s desire after all), but it is emblematic of a modern way of being in the world nevertheless, expressive of the more general fever to know and to have the past.
What historian’s ears are not still ringing from that bracketed slap even when they reach the end of that sentence?
So, who told you history couldn’t be written like that? Who told you it couldn’t be written as a set of unresolved questions, an impossible story? Who told you it couldn’t be what Saidiya Hartman has recently called a ‘narrative written from nowhere’? Who told you it had to be written in full sentences? Radical histories – or what Hartman calls ‘wayward lives, beautiful experiments’ – embrace the fragment:
Wayward: to wander, to be unmoored, adrift, rambling, roving, cruising, strolling, and seeking. To claim the right to opacity. To strike, to riot, to refuse. To love what is not loved. To be lost to the world.
To write in the first person, I might add.
All of the radical historians I have mentioned do that. They bend, stretch, or even break grammatical conventions. All in the service of histories that slap their readers in the face from time to time, or take your breath away, or leave you baffled.
Where next for the nuts and bolts of radical historical writing?
Perhaps more visual forms – histories that make use of the whole page, like poetry, or echo the kaleidoscope fragmentation of prose in social media.
And more histories that co-opt and enjoy that online playfulness, too, where punctuation becomes another toy,,, error a knowing wink, a part of the joke.
The critics wonder, won’t that date?
It will date terribly, and make everything we wrote look horrible, and silly, and naïve, and cliched. Put another way, it will date just as badly as all writing does.
Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools (2008). A classic of the writing manual genre.
Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel (2016). A book that reads historians for how they write (among other things).
Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019). A powerful ‘melding of history and literary imagination’, and a demonstration of writing history, differently.
Alison Light, A Radical Romance (2019). A ‘chronicle of a passionate marriage’, and paradigmatic example of the recent blurring of genres between memoir and history.
Will Pooley is a historian of French popular culture and folklore at the University of Bristol. His first book Body and Tradition in Nineteenth-century France appeared in 2019. He now has two main research interests: witchcraft in France between 1790 and 1940, and creative historical methodologies. In 2019-20 he holds an AHRC Leadership Fellowship combining these interests: ‘Creative Histories of Witchcraft’.