Motivated by all the praise of John le Carré following his death in December, I’ve been reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. For the historian, surely the great line is “Learn the facts, Steed-Asprey used to say, then try on the stories like clothes.”
Getting that sequence right is harder than it sounds, and I’ve fallen into the traps of trying to squeeze facts into stories that looked good on the rack, and of trying to present facts naked to the world.
Steed-Asprey was right. The facts are not the story, and the historian’s job is indeed to try on several stories, to find the one that fits and brings out the facts to their best advantage.
A nice weighing of alternatives:
In the Road Runner cartoons, the Coyote’s real antagonist isn’t the Road Runner. It’s the desert landscape and, you know, the ACME Corporation, who are conspiring to make his life miserable.
Eric Molinsky, quoted in “Noble Effort,” 99% Invisible: A Tiny Radio Show about Design with Roman Mars, August 2013 (7:26).
See “A Thesis Statement Template.”
Thesis Statements: History
UCLA’s advice on thesis statements for history papers.
In January 2007, I posted a Thesis Statement Template, designed to remind students of the essential elements of a thesis for an analytical history paper.
Why did [person/persons] [do/say/write something surprising]? [Plausible explanation], but in fact [better or more complete explanation].
Though many works of history have theses that can be phrased in this manner, they only occasionally take this exact form. But I recently came across a published work that follows this formula almost exactly:
How did Syria come to this pass? While some observers see in recent events a parallel with 1989, with the break-up of the East European–style system introduced by the Baathists in the 1960s, this is no velvet revolution, nor is Syria like Jaruzelski’s Poland. The regime’s violence is not ideological. It is far from being the result of an emotional or philosophical commitment to a party that long ago abandoned its agenda of promoting secular Arab republican values and aspirations. The regime’s ruthless attachment to power lies in a complex web of tribal loyalties and networks of patronage underpinned by a uniquely powerful religious bond. [Malise Ruthven, “Storm Over Syria,” New York Review of Books, 9 June 2011]
I have added this passage to the Thesis Statement Template page.