Scholars Talk Writing: Anthony Grafton

The Princeton historian is a teacher, scholar, collaborator, but not, he says, a writer

Tjook / Creative Commons

June 15, 2015

Every time I walk to and from my office I pass a big poster for the Writers’ Center at my university. The poster features an oversize photo of Ernest Hemingway, and next to it, in proud and arrogant type, the following assertion: "Everyone is a writer. Period."

I try to avert my eyes, because I get irritated every time I see this poster. I go into class and start ranting. No, I say, everyone is not a writer. Just because you write — because you have to write to get your degree — that, my friends, does not make you a writer.

Meanwhile, I’ve been having a lively conversation with a professor who says what many of my colleagues, especially those of us who are not at research-intensive universities, feel: "I have always thought that scholarship is the price you pay to teach at university level."

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

Anthony T. Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University and past president of the American Historical Association, has a list of books he’s written longer than your arm. He’s a meticulous archival scholar and broad thinker, director of centers, recipient of awards, a man whose prose, gentle and gracious, appears with frequency in the rarefied periodicals that still publish for a general, educated readership.

Yet he insists that he is not a writer: "I’ve never felt I could claim to be a writer in that full sense. It just seems arrogant."

Grafton’s upbringing surely had something to do with his view on that. I had assumed, when I was classics editor at Oxford University Press and heard Grafton’s name tossed around with admiration, that he was one of those tweedy guys who talk as if their mouth is filled with marbles. And then I learned that his name, like my own, was a crypto-ethnic mask.

His story: "I am as Eastern European Jewish as you can be — my father’s family came from Vilna, my mother’s from Odessa. But when my father was working on a Philadelphia newspaper, his boss came to him and the other young Jewish man with whom he shared an office, and said, ‘Boys, you’re smart. I have just bought the New York Post and I want to bring you there. But you can’t have names like yours in New York.’ So they went and changed their names the same day. Isidore Feinstein became I.F. Stone, and my dad, Samuel Lipshutz — who, unlike Izzy, was pissed off — became not Samuel Lipton but Samuel Grafton, since Grafton was the most WASP name he could think of (he was born on Grafton Street in Brooklyn)."

When I read Tony Grafton’s writing in places like The New York Times, The American Scholar, or The Chronicle, I am reminded of a favorite quote from Pascal: "When we encounter a natural style we are always surprised and delighted, for we thought to see an author and found a man." Grafton’s prose twinkles with generosity and compassion. Even when he’s focused on the Big Problems — the "crises" in history, the humanities, education — he can describe the landscape and, while never ignoring dark clouds, refrain from Chicken Little-ing and instead suggest practical solutions.

From his father, who he says was a "real" writer, Grafton learned the importance of knowing not only how to begin but when — to learn to be patient enough to wait until you have an idea of where you want a piece to go. "It’s a matter of establishing your voice on the page, in the first sentence, while hoping to win the reader’s attention and not put her off," he says. "I like to do it with stories and metaphors, something I learned how to do while learning to lecture about history to undergraduates.

"But it’s easy to be self-indulgent doing that. My dad was rightly tough on leads that went on too long for what they accomplished. So was Leon Wieseltier, one of the first amazing editors who asked me for reviews. I would send him a piece and a day later he would call and say: ‘It’s great! Brilliant! It just needs some work in the middle. And a different conclusion. And especially a new start.’ All the coaching and criticism helped a lot."

How does this play out in his own teaching?

Says Grafton, "Where writing is concerned — as with scholarly research — I work very hard with my students, and the better the writer, the harder I push him or her. I try to train everyone who works with me in the elements of the craft. In summers between high school and college years, I built theater sets, and I see basic writing as like carpentry: Make it neat, make it solid, don’t use more or less wood than you need. In my experience, any smart student can learn to build a neat, effective paragraph, and I put in a lot of effort at that level. But I also find that a fair number of them can build a distinctive style, with some midwifery — cabinetwork rather than carpentry."

How does he do that? "I don’t separate writing from research or analysis," he says. "I teach it on the page, using ‘track changes’ to work my way into their prose and really push and pull. I have recommend Strunk and White, and — as a model of reading for style — Peter Gay’s Style in History."

I was interested, though, in the particulars of how he teaches writing to students so he gave me an example.

"In my course on historiography we look pretty hard at style — partly because it’s integral to good history, and partly because the students are writing or will write senior theses, and the point of doing the critical reading we do is to help them turn those skills on their own drafts," he says. "I love the first sentence of Macaulay’s History of England (the book I always start with), with which we have a lot of fun. But by the end of the term they don’t need any coaching to do it."

OK, but how, exactly, does he teach that?

"We start by reading aloud," he said. "We look at the sense — the way in which, starting with the "errors" of James II, [Macaulay] tries to show that everything important in modern British history, national and imperial, grew naturally. He’s the teleology kid. We look at his use of anaphora, variation, emphatic repetition, and near-parallels, and the way that those give a kind of aural logic to the story. We push his verbs, looking for evidence of substantive differences in meaning or elegant variation. We ask what his historical parallels do for him. And we look for the neat way that the very prominent narrator who appears at the start makes way for an omniscient voice, whose value judgments are thus depersonalized."

About his writing Grafton says, "My own teacher, Eric Cochrane, was incredibly generous with his time — I’m ashamed every time I compare his teaching practices with mine — and incredibly stringent about prose. He basically set out to terrify us into being competent writers."

As a cub editor at Oxford University Press 30 years ago I learned that the difference between monographs that would sell mostly to libraries and those books we thought had potential to make it into the trade market and later be used in the classroom was, of course, largely more a function of approach than topic. Even subjects that seemed obscure or narrow, in the hands of an excellent writer and scholar, were able to garner media attention and sell beyond a specialized readership.

Looking at his prodigious and impressive output one of the things that struck me was how often Grafton had co-authored work. I’ve never been clear on how that kind of partnership works, so I asked him about it.

"You have to be willing to argue sharply with a close friend, which can be risky," he said. "Back in the late ’80s, when Lisa Jardine, another East-Jew, and I were collaborating on a big and innovative piece of work, we would argue ferociously in public, terrifying our colleagues and friends, and then sit drinking tea (they didn’t know about the dinner tables we both came from, where arguments regularly went Chernobyl and no one turned a hair). And you have to be willing to see your darlings killed by someone else — and not fuss when your partner is right. That said, the intellectual fun is like nothing else — when two or three smart people are working on the same hard topic and it starts to give, it’s pyrotechnics all the way."

Grafton recalls something his father used to say: "’Professors hate being edited, writers love it.’ I don’t know if he was right, but I know that I do love being edited and I didn’t when I was starting out: Working with scholarly collaborators taught me respect for informed opinion directed at my work in a concentrated way."

Which is not to say it ever gets easier, for any of us.

As Grafton confesses, "I worry every time that I send something in that the editor in question will tell me it’s total crap and wash his/her hands of me. I think it’s necessary: Like the nervousness I feel before every lecture in a course I have given 20 times."

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is She welcomes comments and questions directed to