On Christopher Bram’s The Art of History

By Emmett Rensin

Christopher Bram likes some books. He doesn’t like some others.

If you were to list these books, one by one, and include with each Bram’s marginalia a few short paragraphs explaining what he liked about the books he likes and what he didn’t like about the books he doesn’t, you would have in your hands something resembling the preposterously titled The Art of History, out from the ordinarily peerless Graywolf Press this month.

Bram, himself the author of nearly a dozen novels and nonfiction histories, wants to make sense of historical writing: What is it? Why do we read it? Most importantly, how do we do it well? Answering these questions is an ambitious project for a book scarcely longer than 150 pages, and one made more ambitious by the fact that Bram wants to answer them not only as they relate to nonfiction, but to historical fiction as well.

At least I gather that this is what he wants. At no point in The Art of History does Bram state any goals explicitly. The better part of his introduction is given over to an anecdote about a beloved history teacher who helped inspire his own lifelong dedication to the past. The rest goes to the value of studying history (In the end we learn about… ourselves, more or less). From there we launch directly into case studies, grouped by topic: details, lives, comedy, right through to “endings”. The closest we come to a statement of purpose is Bram’s assertion that history is “good medicine”, something that helps us learn that “the past isn’t as long ago as we think, and it isn’t radically different from the present,” that “we must learn to distinguish fact from fantasy,” and that this will in some way help us defeat the Tea Party.

Nonetheless, Bram says, history is not “a magical mystery solution to the problems of the present.”

The jacket copy on The Art of History calls it “an essential volume for any lover of historical narrative.” It isn’t. This isn’t so bad, really, because if there is a way to recommend this book, it is as a primer, better suited for historical neophytes than “lovers.” Bram introduces the reader to dozens of authors. He provides neat summaries of their work. He is an extremely competent, if somewhat superficial close reader, and his book would be of great service to any teacher of undergraduates looking for a quick way to introduce their students to the canon of historical writing while providing an example of the sort of fluid prose and detailed analysis expected in their forthcoming term papers. The Art of History excels as a survey.

But that is all it does. Nothing in The Art of History works toward any theory of aesthetics; if there is an art revealed here, it is the art of Christopher Bram’s taste. We learn whom he likes (Marquez, McCullough, Morgan, William Styron, and Nancy Mitford, among others). We learn whom he doesn’t (Eco, Hugo, Broch, most modern historians writing in multiple volumes, among others). This second set produces a few solid one-liners — Edward P. Jones’ The Known World is “like a North American One Hundred Years of Solitude but even harder to follow”; Blood Meridian, “could be just the fantasy of a really mean fourteen-year-old” — but these burns don’t tell you much.

Bram does offer reasons for his taste, but they rarely extend beyond his assessment of whether or not a particular approach “worked” for him. In a chapter on details, for example, we learn that Lampedusa’s The Leopard is “all details, and good details, too,” while in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall “details open windows only into [Mantel’s] own virtuosity.” War and Peace uses “surprisingly few” details, “which is one reason why War and Peace remains alive.” But Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels has “none of the surprising, striking details that historical writing needs to cut through the clichés.” Key questions remain unanswered. Charles Portis’s True Grit, we learn, is a “wonderful historical novel.” “Postis must’ve read scores of Old West memoirs and dime novels to get the tone exactly right, as well as to capture the slang and wealth of details.” But did he? We don’t find out. By the end of the chapter, we’re left with a thorough account of what kinds of details excite Christopher Bram’s imagination, but no particular sense of what to make of this knowledge, much less what they teach us about the art of historical writing. Sometimes details help, but other times they don’t.

When Bram does attempt a more general lesson, the results are rarely more than platitudes, which are occasionally bizarre but more often just boring.

We learn that certain books help the past “come alive” or help us “see the big picture.” Endings, we learn, are difficult to choose “because history doesn’t stop.” History imported from other languages can be tricky — but also revealing. “Something is lost, but something is also gained,” Bram writes to sum up the translation of A. B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani from Hebrew to English. Attempting to explain how the comic can add depth to history’s most brutal episodes, he tells us,“comedy opens the reader to a more complex and profound sadness than tragedy does, in part because we don’t see the sorrow coming.”

He is talking about Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, a book about Little Bighorn and the indigenous genocide. Humor adds quite a lot to Connell’s narrative, but I am confident we all “see the sorrow coming.”

After a long, serious chapter about the treatment of American slavery in history and fiction, we nonetheless end on the observation that W.E.B. DuBois, a Marxist, wrote about the white worker too. “Like it or not, we are all in this together,” says Bram. Well, alright.

It is possible that all of this is deliberate. There are indications that Bram does not care much for philosophizing, that a kind of unsweeping ambivalence is his sense of the art. The final pages of the book are dedicated to excoriating War and Peace’s second epilogue, a novel Bram otherwise loves:

The Second Epilogue is less than fifty pages long, but it feels interminable. We shift from the novelist’s world of specifics — bodies and emotions and acts — to an amateur philosopher’s jumble of ideas. Tolstoy asks some good questions. […] But his answers are airy and contradictory.

“I don’t know about the laws of history,” Bram writes, but Tolstoy, having successfully worked “the human scale for more than a thousand pages” has “lost faith in his accomplishment by the time he writes his conclusion.”

Maybe so, and maybe it is precisely this kind of humiliating gesture at grand theory that Bram is attempting to avoid. Perhaps a safe collection of close readings is the only thing he believes is achievable in a book like this.

But our culture is so full of this kind of criticism already, so full of writers who are only able to issue lists of praise and condemnation, only willing discuss their preferences, which is to say only willing to discuss themselves. We have too many autobiographies of taste, justified by platitudes. If we are going to have an Art of History, I would rather have it from Tolstoy’s palest imitator. I would rather have it from an author who believes he has uncovered the secret of that art, and who will argue its case, even at the risk of embarrassment. Even at the likelihood of being wrong.

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