How to Be a History Blogger

By unknown photographer, 1934 — original calligraphy of Tokugawa Ieyasu, 1604
via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few times and places in human history whose events are so dramatic, characters so colorful, and dilemmas so tragic that I weep to think that William Shakespeare never heard of them. I get all misty eyed because I know what wonders the Bard wrought with the eras he did know of. Many of his greatest works come from the histories of Rome’s ruin; Plutarch was Shakespeare’s guide here, and Shakespeare was clearly inspired by Plutarch’s description of the tragic fates of the titans who lived at the Republic’s twilight. Who wouldn’t be? Cato, Cicero, Brutus, Antony, Caesar—it is a cast of characters who seem larger than life, names from a different age, a time when giants roamed the world of men. We now know, of course, that most stories that survive from ancient days are often just that: literary embellishments produced by a culture that loved literary craft more than historical fidelity. But it is hard to care too much about this—the characters portrayed are so convincing and the stakes of their contests so great, that we get swept up in the drama and tragedy of it all until someone wakes us from the dream and pulls us back to the drab concerns of 21st century life.

If that at all describes how you think about Roman history, know that you are not alone: poets, playwrights, and painters have said much the same things for centuries. Had Livy, Plutarch, Sallust, and Caesar not left their words to later generations Western civilization would never have produced many of its most beautiful and most meaningful works of art.

History books are littered with characters that can match up to Caesar, but few and far between are the eras when the entire cast shines as brilliantly as the stars of the late Republic did. The bitter tragedy of the An-Lushan rebellion is one such occasion; in the lives of Yang Guifei, Yang Guozhong, Tang Xuanzang, Gao Lishi, Geshu Han, An Lushan, and the other greats of the late Tang court can a story be found that is as fantastic as anything Rome produced (and far superior to the Game of Thrones drivel so many obsess over now). Alas! This is a story that has not been told in English. [1] To be honest, there have been few alive since Shakespeare’s day who are worthy to tell the tale.

The other outstanding drama of human history, filled with men whose stories seem impossibly larger than life, occurred almost a millennium later, near the tail end of an era we now call Medieval Japan. The protagonists here are better known in the West, if only slightly so: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, their families, and their rivals. Their stories also seem tailor made for Shakespearean drama—though unlike the luminaries of Rome and the Tang, the events surrounding these men and women are much more solidly sourced.

All of this came to my mind today as I perused a new blog by historian Morgan Pitelka called 1616. 1616 was the year Tokugawa Ieyasu died, making this the quadricentennial of his death. Fittingly for the occasion, Pitelka has a new book out on the man and his era. The blog seems to be an attempt to garner publicity for the book, but Pitelka’s posts are interesting in their own right. I hope Pitelka continues to write new material for it even after the promotional period for this book ends and he begins working on whatever book or series of articles is next in his queue.  

Pitelka’s blog is a model example of one type of history blog, a category I’ll label the “Public Research Notes” blog. It ties in neatly with a topic I have been pondering of late: how historians and lovers of history can engage with the public online. The topic has been on my mind ever since the Chronicle of Higher Education published a write up on the way political science has changed how journalists talk and write about Washington politics. [2] This is a rather new development; just ten years ago journalists had little time for political science or political scientists. Many political scientists still feel they are marginalized in the policy space, but this perception has more to with a mysterious urge to compare everything political scientists are doing with everything economists have done than with an objective assessment of their discipline’s growing prestige. Frustrated political scientists will feel much better if they change the discipline they measure themselves by. If journalists’ and policy makers’ understanding of political science has increased over the last decade, their knowledge and appreciation for history has lied stagnant.

This is not the post to review why the discipline of history is less prestigious now than it probably has ever been at any time over the last century. Of interest to me is what historians can do to reverse that course–and here the political scientists have shown the way. An integral part of their success were group blogs like Monkey Cage, Duck of Minerva, and Crooked Timber, as well as smaller one-man shops like Dart Throwing Chimp or Chris Blattman’s place. These blogs were hardly the front page of the internet. However, these were platforms that allowed intelligent people outside of the polisci sphere to read what was happening inside it, and this has had all the down stream effects the Chronicle describes.

So how does one write about history online?

The first model I call News Through the Long View. A great deal of the history-related posts I write up here fall under this category. The idea is that the writer analyzes contemporary trends in politics, culture, or society in reference to the experiences of our past. Some events only make sense when put in their proper context; often headlines of the moment are but ripples on the wave of a much larger historical trend. Most people–and sadly, most journalists–simply are not aware of the history that makes the events covered in newspapers meaningful. Two columnists from opposite sides of the political spectrum provide well known examples of how this can be scaled to popular audiences. One is the historian Walter Russel Meade, whose columns for the conservative American Interest are grounded in his knowledge of American history. The other is Ta-Nehesi Coates, whose best columns for the Atlantic are the ones where Coates ties the headlines of the day into history from decades and centuries past.

There are upsides and downsides to this sort of history writing. The upside is that it is both popular and necessary. One downside is that it has a modern bias (though as my debate with Edward Luttwak on the Xiongnu wars shows, ancient history can at times be surprisingly relevant to 21st centuries affairs). A more important one is that many historians don’t want to infect their analysis of the past with the politics and concerns of the present. “Presentism” is a dirty word in historical circles, and often for good reason. If history writing just means using historical facts to win the cultural and political debates of the present, the value of the discipline is cheapened considerably.

The second model is similar to the first, but less relentlessly focused on the controversies of the moment. In a nod to the Chinese, we might call it the History as a Mirror model of writing. This is the kind of thing you will see published in the Los Angeles Review of Books or at Three Quarks Daily. These essays are reflective; usually they attempt to draw enduring lessons from the past–aspects of the human experience that are useful not just in the crisis of the moment, but for all time. These writers take the idea that history should teach us things about the human condition quite seriously. Their essay are often profound, and really are at the center of what makes history part of the humanities in the first place.

The trouble with this sort of writing is that it is hard to be profound on demand. Being consistently interesting is far easier than being consistently profound. No historian can write a new, moving explanation for why they study what they do every single week. Those who see history as a mirror for humanity’s foibles are best off writing for a platform with many authors, as is the case with LARB, New Yorker, and 3 Quarks, so that they can produce at a pace more suitable to real reflection. Unfortunately, this pace is not fast enough for solo blogging, which requires a rather steady drum beat of new material to keep a sizable readership engaged. 

The third type of history blogging we might call Publishing Without Peer Review. This model comes in two forms: the first are those who write extended historical narratives for an online audience; the second are those who publish substantive new research or literature directly online. Atavist is really the king of this first space (if you have not read Jon Mooalem’s “American Hippopotamus” yet you need to stop reading this now, and spend the next 30 minutes on what is likely the best bit of American history you will read all year)[3], but you see this kind of thing appear everywhere from Strategy Bridge to China File. [4] The second space has far fewer writers, the most prominent probably being the economic-history blogger Pseudoerasmus. He posts irregularly, but when he does you often find yourself reading article length posts just as good as anything published in peer-review journals. Indeed, Pseudoerasmus is, to my knowledge, the very first anonymous blogger to ever have been cited in The American Historical Review. [5]

I actually suspect this will be the future of professional history writing. But the future is not here yet, and those hoping to run the publish-or-perish gauntlet will inevitably send their best work to closed-access peer reviewed journals. Most professional historians simply do not have time for writing large popular narratives or conducting extensive research on the side. This style will remain the province of amateurs–even when they produce work equal to any professional’s–for some time yet.

Last of all we come to the type of blog that prompted this entire conversation, Public Research Notes. Consider the last few posts Pitelka has published on 1616.

Here we have a post that documents evidence to demonstrate that the isolationism of the Tokugawa Shogunate did not start with Tokugawa Ieyasu himself; there is a piece noting the relationship between Ieyasu’s personal history and Japan’s later political geography; and here is one that describes Ieyasu’s rivalry with another Sengoku warlord, Takeda Shingen. [6] None of the claims made in these posts are revolutionary contentions destined to upend the way historians understand Medieval Japan; nor are any of these posts making some marvelous argument about enduring lessons of politics, culture, or geography to be found by studying Ieyasu or his era. These little essays will shift no paradigms. They are less profound than they are useful. Anyone interested in the era, as I am, will probably find themselves using them in the future. If I ever need to write about when Japan took its isolationist turn Pitelka’s post is the first place I will go to—and I will feel no compunction citing it in an academic context either. [7]

1616 is in effect a collection of research notes made public. Its entries are the kind of jottings historians should be writing for themselves all of the time just to keep their work organized. The only difference between Pitelka’s jottings and the kind other historians write is that Pitelka’s are public and thus can benefit the rest of the world.

This is a model many historians could learn from and if any historian is nervous about starting their own blog it is is the model I recommend. Many historians are hesitant to blog, I think, because they feel like they have nothing interesting to say. Breakthroughs and great ideas are reserved for journal articles and book manuscripts. They have no time for long form writing on the side, and they don’t see many connections between their chosen topic and whatever issue has set the blogoshere abuzz today. 

Making research notes public is a perfect way to get around the quandary. As long as one is  researching something interesting–and if you don’t find the topic of your own research interesting, it might be time for you to change topics–the research notes blogger will have something to blog about. Their posts will not be life changing, nor will they upturn their chosen field. Their appeal will be limited to those interested in the period or the topic being researched. But those people will be glad and grateful to read the connections historians are making and the sources they are discovering in real time, just as I am glad to have discovered 1616.


[1] The rebellion is the subject of innumerable poems, plays, essays from the last four dynasties of Chinese history, and today, has become the subject of television soap operas, graphic novels, and blockbuster movies as well. No history of the war itself has been written in English; E. G. Pulleyblank’s The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-Shan (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), and  “The An Lu-Shan Rebellion and the Origins of Chronic Militarism in Late T’ang China”, in Perry & Smith, Essays on T’ang Society (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976) are still, more than a half century later, the definitive (if sparse) English language accounts.

[2] Alexander Kafka, “How the Monkey Cage Went Ape,Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 January 2015.

[3] Jon Mooallem, “American Hippopotamus,” Atavist 32, December 2013 iss.

[4] For example, see B.A. Friedman, “The Battle of Gallipoli,”  Strategy Bridge, 24 April, 2015; James Palmer, “A People’s Friendship,China File, 18 January, 2016.

[5] Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler, “AHR Exchange: The History Manifesto Critique,” American Historical Review 120, no. 2 (April 2015), 540, n. 31

[6] Morgan Pitelka, “The Geography of Ieaysu’s Career,” 1616, 11 January 2016; “A Profoundly International Age,” 1616,  16 January 2015; “The Man Who Was Meant to Unify Japan,” 1616, 25 January 2015  

[7] This would be quite easy to do. After citing the primary sources he points to in my own discussion, I would probably write something like: “Credit must be given to Morgan Pitelka for leading me to these sources in “A Profoundly International Age,” 1616 (blogpost), originally posted January 16, 2015,

My hope is that this practice will go mainstream, knocking down the other worry historians have about sharing their notes publicly:  that others will steal the research they make public. Personally I think this is the wrong way to look at it—by publishing a blog you post you should be stamping your name on an idea, Writing a short blog should be the first thing any historian does when they stumble across an insight they would like credit for. 

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