EASY writing, as the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan once observed, makes ``curst hard reading.'' Nowhere is that truer than in the field of history. The historian as fine stylist, compelling storyteller, and what used to be called ``man of letters'' has all but disappeared. In his or her place stands the author of specialized studies that apparently are written for the historian's peers - and for the university students who study with them.
The problem, of course, is that those very students have been drifting away from history courses in alarming numbers. The result, as survey after survey shows, is that Americans know less and less about the past.
Could it be that their interest simply hasn't been captured - that the telling of history, fleshed out with living characters engaged in dramatic encounters over meaningful issues, has pretty much evaporated?
C. Vann Woodward, probably the nation's preeminent historian of the American South, thinks so.
``History was once called a habitation of many mansions,'' he writes, ``but it has been more recently described as scattered suburbs, trailer camps and a deteriorating central city.'' Why? Because ``the New Historians, with notable exceptions, have written mainly for each other.''
As emeritus Sterling Professor of History at Yale, Woodward knows whereof he speaks.
Throughout his long academic career, he has successfully spoken to a broad public in books like ``Origins of the New South,'' which won the Bancroft Prize in 1952, and ``Mary Chestnut's Civil War,'' the Pulitzer winner in 1982. He is currently editing the three-volume ``Oxford History of the United States.''
Now, in this collection of essays originally published between 1960 and 1988, he questions the craft itself - its premises, its trends, its habits of mind, its methods of historiography.
He often uses scholarly topics to configure his arguments - probing, in one essay, the myth that the antislavery movement was universally peopled by upright, courageous, and moral individuals, and arguing in another that a centuries-old ``era of free security,'' provided to America by two oceans and friendly neighbors, has ended abruptly and with profound consequences in an age of missile warfare.
These are engaging subjects in themselves. But Woodward uses them for the larger purpose of questioning what history is for and how it can best do its job.
His answers almost always point to the strengths of compelling narrative and graceful style. For all their methodological sins, he praises ``the Church fathers,'' who ``understood the dramatic advantage possessed by the storyteller who can keep his audience sitting on the edge of eternity.''
Conversely, Woodward faults those, who in their thirst for scientific method, abandon their devotion to Clio, the classic muse of history. ``Cliometricians,'' he calls them at one point, noting elsewhere that Tolstoy defined the academic historians of his day as ``deaf men replying to questions that nobody puts to them.''
This attitude, of course, has not always endeared Woodward to his colleagues, and he does not dismiss their concerns lightly. ``The efforts to please popular taste and court popular esteem,'' he concedes, have tended ``to encourage the qualities of blandness and banality'' and ``to diminish the esteem in which the craft was held by sister disciplines.'' Yet these very sentences hold the key to Woodward's commitment to writing public and accessible works. History, for him, is ``craft'' rather than merely ``discipline,'' art rather than science. That makes this book especially pleasing to read.
For all their depth of detail, these essays are intelligent, gracious, seasoned with wit, and always authoritative. It's not hard to conclude, reading them, that the way to combat the current epidemic of historical illiteracy is to cultivate historians in Woodward's mold.