A couple of my students this quarter when I was TA-ing asked for examples of effective historical writing, and so I pointed them to this paragraph from one of the course readings, T.H. Breen’s article, “Baubles of Britain: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 119 (May 1988) (available via Jstor here):
Whatever the psychological impact of this change may have been, there is no question that Americans at mid-century confronted a range of choice that would have amazed earlier generations. A survey of New York City newspapers revealed, for example, that during the 1720s merchants seldom mentioned more than fifteen different imported items per month in their advertisements. The descriptions were generic: cloth, paper, ceramics. But by the 1770s it was not unusual during some busy months for New York journals specifically to list over nine thousand different manufactured goods. And as the number of items expanded, the descriptive categories became more elaborate. In the 1740s New York merchants simply advertised “paper.” By the 1760s they listed seventeen varieties distinguished by color, function, and quality. In the 1730s a customer might have requested satin, hoping apparently that the merchant had some in stock. By the 1760s merchants advertised a dozen different types of satin. No carpets were mentioned in the New York advertisements before the 1750s, but by the 1760s certain stores carried carpets labeled Axminster, Milton, Persian, Scotch, Turkey, Weston, and Wilton. One could purchase after the 1750s purple gloves, flowered gloves, orange gloves, white gloves, rough gloves, chamois gloves, buff gloves, “Maid’s Black Silk” gloves, “Maid’s Lamb Gloves,” and even “Men’s Dog Skin Gloves.” There is no need to continue. Everywhere one looks, one encounters an explosion of choices.
What I like about this paragraph is the precision of detail and the efficiency of movement from one detail to the next. The topic sentence stakes out the paragraph’s little argument with flair: we will be concerned, for the next few sentences, not just with a minor matter of “an increase in choice” or something bland like that, but with “a range of choice that would have amazed earlier generations.” This is a dramatic and speedy transformation! Then, without unnecessary prefatory or transitional verbiage, we are carried quickly from one piece of evidence to the next, and in the evidence there is something for everyone: the quantitative types who want hard numbers, the qualitative dreamers who want thick description. And we have agents! Merchants and customers. These are not invisible hands! Finally, the two closing sentences close off any doubts about the sheer magnitude of the change under consideration. “There is no need to continue. Everywhere one looks,” the evidence is the same — not just a mild flowering or a slight expansion, but a veritable “explosion of choices.” There is an argument being made here, but it’s being made at the level of word choice: it makes itself. Here we have words being invited, allowed, encouraged to do the work they were meant to do, rather than, as you so often see, words being impressed against their will into service they aren’t suited for.
So far, so good: But if this paragraph were just another sturdily composed, cleanly written version of your standard expository paragraph (identify your topic, list your evidence non-awkwardly, sum up), it would not be that remarkable. But there’s another layer on which this paragraph works so well. Look at those last few sentences: This is a catalog of catalog entries! The form in which the evidence is presented mimics, even reproduces, its substance. Presumably Breen read hundreds of advertisements in order to generate the impressions summarized here. With two little litanies — “Axminster, Milton, Persian, Scotch, Turkey, Weston, and Wilton,” “purple gloves, flowered gloves, orange gloves, white gloves, rough gloves, chamois gloves, buff gloves” — he gives the reader a fleeting sense of that same experience, and thereby, opens up a very small door through which the reader cannot quite fit, but can at least peek into the big world of eighteenth-century New York. Well, to me this is basically what historical writing is supposed to do. Also, I like lists wherever they appear. Consider that moment in which (in F.W. Dupee’s words) Humbert Humbert “pounces upon a mimeographed list of names of Lolita’s classmates.” Like Humbert Humbert, historians should be ready to pounce when their archives present them with “a poem, forsooth!”