American History in 17 syllables and 140 characters

BY Victoria Fleischer  April 28, 2014 at 3:07 PM EST
H W Brands. Photo by Marsha Miller

H. W. Brands. Photo by Marsha Miller

For historian H. W. Brands, there are many ways to write about history. When teaching his students at the University of Texas the different tried and true formats for a good paper, Brands, who is known for his books “Andrew Jackson” and “The Age of Gold” to name a few, likes to emphasize that any form is acceptable.

“If you wanted to, you could write history in Haiku,” Brands told chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown. “I’ve been saying this for some years when one semester, one bright student said, ‘Well, Professor Brands, have you ever written history in haiku.’”

This challenge happened to coincide with the advent of Twitter and thus, “History in Haiku,” a chronological telling of North America’s past, was born.


Listen to chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with H. W. Brand about the origins and lessons learned for History in Haiku.

“I’ve observed that the forms available to writers have changed over time and I thought one of the most radical changes was Twitter, the idea that you would send this message in a 140 characters. It occurred to me that the 17 syllables in a haiku fit conveniently in 140 characters of twitter.”

Brands has learned lessons since his first haiku tweet in 2009. He began including parenthetical tags at the end of his tweets to help his readers recognize which historical event he was referencing. He also started slowing down his writing of history and breaking into smaller, more manageable slices.

He thinks of his haiku as a “snapshot of one moment.” Brands will write a handful at a time and then tweet one every day or so over the following weeks. For some historical events, one tweet will do. For others, it can take longer.

“I covered 10,000 years in North American history in 2 or 3 haiku, but by the time I got to the Civil War, I found, in fact, that I was losing ground. It was taking me longer to write the haiku than it was for the events to roll out,” said Brands. “The Battle of Gettysburg lasted only 3 days, but I wrote it in probably 10 or 15 haiku that were spread out over 3 weeks.”

So what is the ultimate goal? The present.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take and I don’t know how long twitter is going to be the social medium it is today, but haiku have been around for a long time so I think those are going to last.”