By Matthew Herrera, M.A. Student, Department of History
Last Tuesday — March 25th — 2014 UMass Writer-in-Residence Adam Hochschild paid a visit to Stephen Platt’s Graduate Writing History Seminar. During this session, students were able to interact with the prolific writer, asking him numerous questions ranging from his writing style, dealing with writer’s block, and advice for developing a thick skin when it comes to reviewers. Adam Hochschild is a writer of journalism and history. He is also a Lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has contributed to numerous magazines, newspapers, and published many well-known works, such as King Leopold’s Ghost, Bury the Chains, and most recently, To End All Wars.
During our seminar we discussed many things, such as technique; his book, To End All Wars; and advice regarding the publication process. However, one of the most important lessons we learned from Hochschild’s visit was his approach of writing history for popular audiences. Hochschild informed us that his job as a writer was to captivate the reader in a subject in which he or she has no interest. To accomplish this, Hochschild presents the material through the eyes of characters and their relationships. In his article “Practicing History without a License,” Hochschild states academic historians often produce works that are obscure and “dry as dust.” One way of avoiding this, he recommends, is by writing history though the utilization of characters. Not only does this approach engage the reader, but it also allows the author to tell the story through the experiences of characters. Additionally, using characters that are connected together will only engage the reader even further. Using films, novels, and plays as examples, Hochschild pointed out most stories involve characters that are connected and encounter each other.
Also discussed was technique and writing style. Hochschild believes in order reach wider audiences, historians need to make use of the classic tools writers have been using for hundreds of years, such as narrative devices of plot and scene setting. Writing that makes use of these techniques appeals to audiences outside of academia, and using these in works that expand the field can only have a positive influence. As Hochschild states in his article, “there is no reason why most history can’t be written in a way that offers thought provoking analysis and, at the same time, reaches well beyond an audience of fellow scholars.”
While pointing out various techniques and ways in which characters can help drive a written history, Hochschild did stress diligence. He warned that one must remain disciplined to not overwhelm the reader with too many characters. Introducing too many could not only lead to a work becoming tedious, but also confuse the reader, causing him or her to lose interest. Furthermore, it could become harder for the author to keep up with everything as the characters start to blend together. After all, every one of us has encountered a book, film, or television show that had so much going on, our interest faded or we were left Lost and confused.
In a field that is looking to expand further into the public consciousness, following the advice Hochschild bestowed upon our history class can be extremely beneficial. There are definitely times that research and analysis-driven works are most appropriate, yet finding a medium that appeals to both academics and popular audiences can only be beneficial. While it seems the “gap” between the two audiences is closing, producing historical works driven by characters, plot, and scene settings can only hasten the process and benefit the field by helping it grow.
Hochschild, Adam. “Practicing History Without a License.” Historically Speaking XI, no. 4 (March/April 2008): 2-21.
Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. New York: Mariner Books, 2011.