Dead style

The juxtaposition was framed by Nevins: dry-as-dust history versus the well-told story. He even started a movement, a magazine (American Heritage), and his own professional organization of historians to bring storytelling to the fore.

Now here's a horror film scenario for you. What if you abandon the rigor and discipline of dry-and-dust and your storytelling fails? You don't have the literary skills for narrative? Where are you then?

Most "well written" nonfiction is badly written, reaching out, stretching for the historian's idea of the absolute pinnacle of literary perfection, Newsweek magazine style.

Oscar Handlin (right) in his 1979 survey of the profession, Truth in History, had some throughts worth underlining. (Emphasis added)

The judgement of history as a literary art is the easier to deliver. The average effort requires little comment; it bears the impersonal marks of a competently edited clinical or laboratory report. The best contemporary writing deserves more attention. It is clear, and it is sometimes amusing, but it is usually frozen in patterns inherited from the past, sometimes actually in antique idiom.

The reviewer’s conventional term of approval is "readable." By whom? Actually, the word usually means "undemanding," so that it is praise to say of a book that it is easily read or skimmed. The language structure comes intact from the 19th century except insofar as the influence of journalism has simplified it.

Now there were great writers among the nineteenth century historians. […] there was a congruence between the styles of Macaulay or Parkman and the modes of expression of their contemporaries in fiction or poetry… No such congruence exists today; the historians have locked themselves apart from the changes that have transformed the English language since the time of Joyce, Eliot, and Pound.

Dead style is not just a matter of external form. It is related to what the historians have to say. We do not demand of Faulkner or Pound that they make easy reading, because we know that the intricacies of exposition, obscure allusions, and unusual diction are the means of communicating complex ideas. Do historians never feel the same need?