Guest post by Phil Scranton
When a scholarly book is finished, and before readers and critics decide what it means and what use it might have, an author (or in this case, coauthor) might well ask what’s been learned in the process. Academics write to communicate with and influence others, to be sure, but “doing the writing” usually remains an intensely personal and private affair. Whatever my work may deliver, at base I write for an audience of one, me.
Perhaps, though, the preceding sentence should be recast in past tense. Why? Because in writing Reimagining Business History, I learned how to write for and with a colleague and friend. This was new and invigorating. And let me suggest that, when entering your mid-sixties, there’s not a lot that’s new and invigorating (rather than new and disconcerting).
In 2007, Patrick Fridenson and I outlined the forty-plus topics we imagined discussing, but we spent virtually no time devising the process that lay ahead. Like so many other team-built projects, we just sorted our subjects into piles: yours, mine, and ‘later.’ We thought he and I would individually draft some texts to share for revisions. ‘Later’ meant those sections about which we both knew something. These we’d write together – although we worked and lived 4,000 miles (6400 km) apart.
The ‘plan’ was a bit sketchy yet straightforward. We thought we could create some 43 ‘entries’ in two years, perhaps a bit longer. Of course, this was silly. After a shared 80 years doing academic research, we should have known that such planning was futile. Indeed, each of us wound up confronting unexpected challenges and demands in work and life, making forward movement impossible.
Then the penny dropped. About 2009, we realized that we needed to talk with each other in a sustained way, so as to develop the ideas first broached on a park bench in Umbria, as the book’s Preface notes. I had some research and travel funds annually from Rutgers, so we agreed that I would come to Paris periodically for a week or ten days. Patrick would clear his schedule as much as possible and we would explore what we were doing and how best to attempt it.
These one-on-one seminars, mornings and afternoons, day after day, with a fine Parisian lunch in between, provided the most intellectually exciting experiences of our professional lives. In the first two series, we outlined each of the pieces in a very rough fashion, listing key concepts and questions, noting possible secondary works, identifying blank spots where we needed to read and digest new materials. I took voluminous notes and copied them to Patrick.
With these jointly created outlines, writing began to move along, not least because we knew that we each were writing for the other. Patrick’s schedule at EHESS, however, intensified, then the Ecole moved house from Boulevard Raspail to Avenue de France, and finally, his aged aunt, for whom he was the only surviving relative, grew ill and ever more frail. Given this squeeze, we recognized that the only way to complete the entries was to write them jointly, again in Paris.
Thus we convened a second series of face-to-face sessions, this time sitting together in Patrick’s office, writing section after section, before and after our proper lunches (though some featured the Ecole’s cafeteria, not a nearby bistro). This process involved intense and sustained improvisation and speculation, rapid on-line fact-checking, and far more laughter than I recollect from any other scholarly enterprise. In these weeks I learned how to write with a spontaneity I still treasure and which rarely had surfaced in earlier projects.
If memory serves, we undertook three sets of writing boot camp two-a-days, each a week or longer, separated by months in which we reframed drafts, filled in holes, and exchanged notes on sources and questions. In sum, the process by which we got this book to the JHU Press and to readers was more than memorable. Those Paris collaborations remind me of the tension and the joy that practicing for performance brings, and of the rich creativity that arises when gifted composers and lyricists, playwrights and directors, complete something that neither could achieve without the other. Would that there could be more of this in the practice of history.
Phil Scranton is University Board of Governors Professor, History of Industry and Technology, at Rutgers University and editor for the JHU Press series Studies in Industry and Society. His book with Patrick Fridenson, Reimagining Business History, is now available from the JHU Press. Attendees of the 2013 meeting of the Business History Conference will have the opportunity to meet Professors Scranton and Fridenson and purchase signed copies of their book for just $15.00 on Saturday, March 23, between 3 and 3:30.