Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lowbrow and Loving It

The term “popularizer” is the anathema of academia, both in history and philosophy. The thought that these disciplines can be explained to the uninitiated, and in a pleasing fashion, is blasphemy. This is not a new complaint (Gore Vidal discusses it delightfully, of course) but an article I read recently by Alain de Botton put me into ecstasy. His words have reinforced for me my choice of vocation.

Although I have written much in the personal/philosophical essay, and shall continue to do so, this is not very marketable material. In future, along with my less salable work I must try seriously for publication and payment. Of course, I have already unconsciously gone down that road with my historical researches. In William Craig Rice’s essay “Who Killed History? An Academic Autopsy”, he makes the point that academic historians are obliged to be technical and obscure to impress their colleagues and hope to kiss the golden ring of tenure.

Rice argues that the independent popular historians are popular for just that reason, independence. They can afford to take chances and follow their deepest inclinations, the pleasure from which all great writing flows. He ends the essay with the following quote: “Voltaire once said that history can only be written well in a free society. His dictum is borne out today by our better writers of history, who are also our freest. Perhaps it follows from Voltaire that if history is not written well, its writers are not free.”

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