Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History, by Jim Cullen (2017)

Review of Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History, by Jim Cullen (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, third edition)

Disclaimer: an e-book was provided by the publisher in exchange for a review, though this has in no way influenced the review’s content.


Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History  is a recently updated book by American high school teacher and occasional university lecturer, Jim Cullen. First published in 2009, this book is now on its third edition, introducing ‘newer’ forms of research to the essay writing process. Cullen is the Chair of the History Department at the Fieldston School in New York, and has written numerous books throughout his career, including his 2003 work, The American a Dream: A Short History of An Idea That Shaped the Nation. Cullen’s background is as an American Studies professional; it is in this field that he gained his PhD. Essaying the Past is a useful, relatively clear guide on how to write and frame a history essay or research paper, with a structure which easily allows the reader to dip in and out of the book. Its clear prose makes it much more accessible to younger students, and removes ambiguity over what the author is saying. However, this accessibility raises questions about the primary target audience of the book.


A particularly useful aspect of this book is the style in which it is written. There are a variety of references relating to widely known persons to help Cullen illustrate his point. For example, in chapter eight regarding how to formulate a thesis, Cullen states “[a] statement that Taylor Swift is a successful pop star is not an especially arresting thesis.” Though the book is about how to write a history essay, the example of Swift is useful for two reasons. Firstly, it keeps the book’s content fresh, suggesting to students that the information in the book is up to date – it also keeps them interested. And secondly, it alleviates the problem of choosing an example accessible to all students. The sheer range of history means that different schools and universities may cover entirely different topics, and to give a particularly historical example in a relatively difficult chapter would potentially alienate students who did not understand the content. However, there are some examples which are questionable choices within the guide. In particular, the introduction to chapter seven has a lengthy discussion about the film You’ve Got Mail, which does not seem particularly relevant to the chapter’s content. This is even more pressing, as this is the first chapter of the second part of the book, which Cullen describes as “the heart of the book”. Though the rest of the chapter was interesting, the lengthy example served only to slow down the pace of the book. However, as mentioned, the majority of examples provided are relevant to either history or wide popular culture.

Also useful is the way in which Cullen gets his point across. Rather than using stuffy, theoretical language about how one might use evidence to construct an argument, he directly refers to the reader as ‘you’. This is evident from the first line of the first chapter when he states “[s]o here you are, facing the prospect of writing some history.” This welcomes the reader, and makes the book much more readable. Using an informal style is beneficial, particularly for younger or more nervous students, as it creates a form of collective identity whilst also being strangely personal: the book is for this student, but also for all the other students in the same boat as them. Use of the second person is supported by Cullen’s colloquial tone cullenthroughout. In chapter six, he states, “you’ll probably find you like popular history more than academic history…,” and this continues throughout; in chapter fourteen, he refers to a “bunch of films” when discussing a student’s history project. Both contractions and colloquial language choices make the book’s content feel more familiar to students, and to make it more natural Cullen conveys it in the vernacular. Together, these elements help create a style of writing which makes a very readable book.


The structure of Cullen’s book is very appealing. As he himself recognised in the introduction, it is designed to have multiple entry points, so that a student who wants to focus primarily on how to research an essay can direct themselves to the relevant chapters. This is useful, as it ensures all chapters are focused on the topic they say they are about, which is not always the case with historical literature. It also helps to make the book less daunting to a newcomer; they can stick to what they need to read, rather than perusing the whole book. This is furthermore helped by the fact that each chapter is relatively short. There are none of the fifty-page chapters all too common in some works of history. Instead, the 226 page book is split into sixteen chapters, plus an introduction, conclusion and various appendices, helping to keep the focus throughout. Cullen is aware of his target audience, and understands that long chapters are unappealing to both the nervous and those with a short attention span.

This style also aids the flow of the book. It was easy to get drawn into the book and read large chunks at a time. It wasn’t a chore to read Cullen’s work; instead, it was a refreshing change to many theoretical guides. The easy flow, complete with clear prose, allows the reader to remain fully focused on the purpose of the book, rather than translating stilted jargon. However, chapters fourteen and fifteen appear to make extremely similar points; it was difficult to see the purpose of keeping the topics separate – in fact, it actually made the subject matter more confusing, if anything.


It is clear from the above comments that the book is extremely accessible to almost all readers. And yet in this lies its biggest flaw: who exactly is the target audience for this guide? In the introduction’s first paragraphs, Cullen references the need for “reading, writing, [and] thinking” throughout one’s academic career and beyond regardless of subject, suggesting that potentially this book is for all history students. Indeed, throughout this book, one cannot find a clear definition of a history “student”. Due to the use primarily of high school students’ examples, one assumes that this book was designed primarily for students 14-18; however, this then caused a further problem. Many of the points discussed in the book – from historiography, to the Annales School, to questions of historicism – are relevant only in the study of history at university level. Therefore, whilst the reviewers were comfortable with the above concepts, it is difficult to believe that a fourteen or fifteen year old student would feel calm when reading about Marc Bloch, and different “types” of history. And yet, were a university student to read this, it is likely that they would switch off early on, due to the explanation of certain concepts, such as the distinction between primary and secondary sources, which, to them, are self-explanatory.

A final point is that it was felt that the book was designed primarily for an American audience. Whilst the matter of structuring an essay, and formulating a thesis statement, are relevant for British students, the concepts of designing an essay question and actively searching for a wide variety of sources become applicable only towards the very end of the secondary school experience. Indeed, even at university it is often only the dissertation topic which is wholly a self-driven piece of work, from idea to question to end result. Thus, it is suggestible that the book’s lack of clear target audience means it potentially fails to grasp its intended audience.


In summary, Cullen’s book is pleasing and clear, and makes the theoretical process of showing someone how to write an essay fun. Unfortunately, “history students” is too broad a target audience, meaning that the guide struggles to find its focus. However, Cullen’s style is engaging, and his pop culture references are particularly appreciated throughout as an alternative to historical examples. The structure allows the reader to dip in and out at leisure, and the short chapters help keep the book fast-paced. The book flows well from beginning to end, and the various high school essay exemplars are appreciated to give a real indication of what Cullen’s theory means. Overall, should some examples change, and the author assess his target audience, it is likely that the book would be an excellent tool for history teachers and students in a secondary school.


Written by Victoria Bettney, Sophie Turbutt, Elsa Robinson, Paul Kerr and Laura Flannigan