Parkman Prize--winner Jared Farmer reflects on writing the biography of a landform.

Position:Point of Departure

A history book is less creative than a novel, for the novelist creates a new world. The historian, meanwhile, is restricted by this world--the extant sources, especially, but also the rules of the guild. However, just as a fugue or a sonata can be surprisingly creative and stunningly beautiful, an artful history book can be euphonically logical: it can play with the conventions even as it honors them.

The hardest part of composing On Zion's Mount was the pre-writing--the landscape design, so to speak. My primary goal was simple: I wanted to write a local history that had national significance. I love local history--the fine points and the idiosyncrasies, the very wackiness ness of it. The danger, of course, is that the local can become parochial.


To get around this danger, history writers have developed different strategies. Microhistorians take a slice of life--a singular event or even a single day--and explore it in such depth that the piece elucidates the whole: a whole mentality or era or process. Social historians have written biographical studies of both ordinary people and outlier figures, and longitudinal studies of villages and neighborhoods.

My strategy was different. My starting point was topography. I like to think of myself as an Earth-based humanist, and to think of this book as a biography of a landform. For my local matter I deliberately chose a topographic feature that seems timeless and natural--a...

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