Saturday, April 9, 2011

Baiting the hook: Tony Horwitz on his relationship to the history profession

Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist-turned-author Tony Horwitz was the featured speaker at Saturday’s public plenary session, held at the Pensacola Little Theater in Historic Pensacola Village. Horwitz spoke about the usefulness of the journalistic fact-checking habit when doing historical research, the freedom that he enjoys in choosing and pursuing the subjects he writes about, and the nagging sense of guilt that comes from making use of the scholarly work of others in his own best-selling works. His next book, an investigation of the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia by John Brown and others, poses the question, “When, if ever, does the individual have the right to commit violence and defy the state?”

Horwitz was refreshingly candid about his own fears that he’s oversimplifying history in his efforts to tell a story that will “hook” readers and make them want to read more. While he’s an undeniably good storyteller, I do find him a little too willing to emphasize the colorful at the expense of the truly complex; his characterizations of Civil War reenactors in his best-known work, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, sensationalize a complex community in ways that I’ve always found troubling. Both journalism and scholarly writing have their own straitjackets that can keep us from finding more original paths through a subject as we write about it, and while I think Horwitz is right to note that scholars can’t usually bust out of their constraints, he also still seems bound by his own—the “lead, “hook,” “kicker” pattern that becomes second nature in journalistic writing. It was good to hear him talk about the importance of communicating “the strangeness of the past,” but that strangeness sometimes demands forms that are themselves strange and new—a challenge to all of us who labor with words and stories.

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