Mahan and the Craft of Writing History

Mahan and the Craft of Writing History
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In March 1903, the Atlantic Monthly published Alfred Thayer Mahan’s address to the American Historical Association, which he had delivered a few months earlier in Philadelphia. Mahan, as the association’s new president, spoke on “The Writing of History.” By that time, Mahan had been writing historical works for 20 years, and he would continue to do so until his death in December 1914. 

He was born in 1840 at West Point, where his father, Dennis Hart Mahan, taught the future officers of the U.S. (and Confederate) Army. In 1859, Mahan graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and later served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. In the mid-1880s, he was appointed to the faculty of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and later served as president of the college. His first book, The Gulf and Inland Waters (1883), described naval actions during the Civil War. His second book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783 (1890), made him internationally famous. He wrote 18 more books and hundreds of articles on history, biography, international relations, and religion (he was a devout Christian). 

What should inform historical writing?

In “The Writing of History,” Mahan told his audience that his purpose was to explain “the spirit which should inform historical writing.” He began with fundamentals: “thoroughness and accuracy of knowledge; intimate acquaintance with facts in their multitudinous ramifications; mastery of the various sources of evidence, of the statements, usually conflicting, and often irreconcilable, of the numerous witnesses who have left their testimony.” 

The writer of history must possess “knowledge, exact and comprehensive.” With that knowledge, Mahan explained, the historian must seek to construct a “temple of truth.” Historical writing is more than presenting accumulated facts or narration. It is necessary to present those facts in a way that produces order out of chaos. It is the “interrelation of incidents, successive or simultaneous,” that gives history “a continuity in which consists its utility as a teaching power, resting upon experience.” 

Facts and events, Mahan noted, “are only the bricks and mortar of the historian.” Facts and events are often related to each other, and the greatest historians possess the ability — the art — to “detect these relations in their consecutiveness, and so to digest the mass of materials as to evolve in one’s own mind the grouping, the presentation, which shall stamp the meaning of a period upon the minds of readers with all the simple dignity of truth and harmony.” In this way, the historian mimics “the mental process of the artist, by the due selection and grouping of the materials . . . that there is evolved a picture comprehensible by the mass of men.” 

Writing of history as an art

The writing of history, like the painting of a picture, requires insight, imagination, and “a gift of expression,” Mahan said. The historian does not create history; he “realizes it, brings out what is in it.” The historian must view events not in isolation but rather as a unified whole, identifying the “leading features” and judging their “respective importance,” recognizing their “mutual relations.” Indeed, some histories have a “central feature around which details are to be grouped.” 

History, Mahan explained, embraces “all the various activities of mankind during a given epoch, . . . a vast multiplication of incident, with a corresponding complication of the threads to which they severally belong.” 

Mahan in his own historical writing was faithful to this conception. The central feature of many of his historical works was sea power in its broadest sense, as reflected in the titles of his most famous books: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire (1892), The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (1897), Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812 (1905). Other leading features identified and presented in all of Mahan’s works include geography, relative population, character of government, and the character of political and military leaders. 

Mahan was able to connect history and geopolitics

Mahan’s conception of history also translated into a shrewd geopolitical outlook that enabled him to identify threats to the global balance of power, such as Wilhelmine Germany and Tsarist Russia. It also enabled him to accurately perceive the shared geopolitical interests of Great Britain and the United States in the 20th century. 

In his memoirs From Sail to Steam (1907), written four years after “The Writing of History,” Mahan reiterated his plea for “picturesque treatment of biography and of history” that involved the grouping and subordination of facts and events to a “central idea.” The historian, he wrote, must not be “content with mere narration, however accurate in details.” He must seek to answer “the big questions” and discern the “broad lines of . . . history.” Mahan did that, and we are richer in knowledge and understanding because he did.

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