Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life
Saturday, October 10, 2015
Anthony Grafton: "I never felt I could claim to be a writer..."
Anthony Grafton at Messiah College, Feb 28, 2012
Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education Rachel Toor has published a pieceon Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton. The article focuses on Grafton's approach to teaching writing. The Princeton professor has written scholarly books and articles for popular publications such as the American Scholar and The New York Times, but he insists that he is not a "writer." Here is a taste of Toor's piece.
...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.
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."