The big challenge in historical writing is how to interweave big-picture themes and explanations with the stuff of day-to-day individual lives. (As vs., say, if you’re an economist, you don’t explicitly need to talk about the latter and if you are a novelist, or anyway a novelist not named Tolstoy, you don’t explicitly need to talk about the former. Historians, most of them anyway, try to at least nod to both. OK, end dramatically oversimplified disciplinary caricatures.) I was recently re-reading Rebirth of a Nation, by Jackson Lears, and here’s a paragraph in which he shuffles his zoom lenses:
Northern nationalism triumphed, and with it the dream of a messianic destiny for America, a nation bound to play a redemptive role in the sacred drama of world history. Southerners, having drunk deeply of millennial nationalism themselves, eventually embraced the Northern version as their own. But this would happen only after Radical Republicans had failed to implement their sweeping version of Reconstruction, after Northern politicians had decisively abandoned the freed slaves, and the meaning of the war—at least for white people—had been transformed from Emancipation to Reunion. The key to that transformation was a revived ethic of martial valor, an ethic rooted in Civil War memories and entangled with a developing discourse of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. By the 1890s, Anglo-Saxon militarism would solidify the reconnection of the white North and the white South, to the exclusion of black Americans. This could not happen overnight. The memory of the war—not as moral crusade or lost cause but as actual experience—was too fresh. Farmers in Virginia were still turning up skulls in their cornfields.
(This paragraph is from p. 13, in chapter one, “The Long Shadow of Appomattox.” The book covers 1877 to 1920; but first, in this preliminary chapter, Lears sets the Gilded Age stage with all the props and set design placed there by the Civil War and Reconstruction.)
OK, so maybe this is a bit literal of an example to choose to illustrate my point here—Lears explicitly adverts to the moment at which he shifts from “crusade” and “cause” back down into the gear of “actual experience”—but nevertheless: I like it. We start out with a really big-picture capital-h Historical Phenomenon, nationalism—we’re talking, when this paragraph begins, about “the sacred drama of world history.” Then we do get some actors: Southerners, Radical Republicans, Northern politicians, freed slaves, “white people”—but these are still pretty broad categories; in theory Lears is naming groups of people, but the groups are so capacious as to be closer, on the spectrum, to abstractions than to names. Plus, no sooner are they named than we’re zooming back out again to the highest level of generality: Anglo-Saxon supremacy, “the white North,” “the white South.” These are ideas. But, Lears quickly reminds us, they are ideas that have direct meaning for people—they exclude people from the nation: namely, “black Americans.” We zoom in, we zoom out. Repeat.
So we’ve got some ideas, and we’ve got some people, if generic people. End the paragraph at its penultimate sentence, and Lears would still have had a perfectly serviceable explanation of the paragraph’s point. It’s the final sentence that makes this paragraph a model. An eleven-word memento mori jerks us back to the lived experience of war: “Farmers in Virginia were still turning up skulls in their cornfields.” The sentence is jarring, shocking, precisely because it’s so out of step from everything preceding it. Suddenly we really have people. One minute we’re flying along at 30,000 feet, watching the cars below like ants, then abruptly we’re a passenger in one of the cars and the car is crashing headfirst into the side of a Mack truck. In general, ordinarily, I am a reader who thinks almost every abstract noun would be better replaced with something tangible. But here, I have to admit that I can see the utility of abstractions for setting up a contrast. Lears’s self-restraint in limiting himself to generalities in the first six sentences of the paragraph is what’s needed to give the seventh its power. He could, for instance, have followed up the sentence on “the discourse of Anglo-Saxon supremacy” with, say, a lynching or a segregated railroad car. But that would’ve weakened this paragraph; it would’ve made the skull image a more seamless fit with what precedes it, less noticeable, and thus, paradoxically, less effective.