In 2009, convinced that history can be told in any form, H.W. Brands embarked on a project to tweet the history of America in haiku. Four-and-a-half years and nearly 500 tweets later, Brands has managed to recount the American story up to the 19th century, with no plans of stopping anytime soon.
History in haiku (1): Walking from Asia / A hunter, a tribe, a clan / Into a new world. (First arrivals, c. 15,000 BC)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) November 17, 2009
History in Haiku (7): A cold churning sea / A windswept peninsula / This is a refuge? (Plymouth, 1620)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) July 24, 2010
Brands is a professor of history at UT and a prolific writer who has published 25 books covering American history and politics, two of which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
But he believes that compelling stories can take a variety of lengths and forms.
“I have long been telling my students that you can write a history of the world in 800 words or 8 million words; it’s just a matter of how much detail you include,” Brands says.
Inspired by his own advice and curious about Twitter’s storytelling potential, Brands set out to tell the “American saga 17 syllables at a time.”
HAIKU HISTORY (13) Clouds churn, thunder rolls / The kite string shudders and sends / A small spark to earth. (Ben Franklin’s kite, 1752)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) December 5, 2010
He opens the door / And slips behind Lincoln’s seat / Primed pistol in hand. (Booth and Lincoln, April 1865)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) September 25, 2013
Johnson’s acquittal / Rescues the presidency / But he is finished. (Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, 1868)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) November 10, 2013
Brands spends several hours at a time crafting a dozen tweets in order to post one a day. Rather than try to boil down entire events into 140 characters, he prefers to capture the essence of historical moments in a span of multiple tweets. In the same way he writes his books, he tries to incorporate narrative elements such as suspense to keep his followers interested and engaged in the “grand story that just goes on and on.”
“The whole idea is that people who follow me, they don’t have to start at the beginning,” Brands says. “They can just pick up the story wherever.”
The haikus have also found a place in Brands’ classroom, where he occasionally uses the tweets to spark discussions. But he adds that Twitter and other online outlets should extend teaching beyond the classroom audience.
“I feel that those of us who teach at a public university have a particular responsibility to make what we do accessible and valuable to people who don’t ever come into the classroom,” Brands says. “My Twitter business is a small step in that direction.”
They toil as tenants / For a slim share of the crop / Forever cotton. (Southern sharecroppers, late 1800s)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) November 24, 2013
Many now conclude / That worship of wealth has claimed / America’s soul. (Depression of 1870s)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) January 20, 2014
The nation’s railroads / Clank and shudder to a halt / Paralysis spreads. (Great Strike, 1877)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) February 1, 2014
Crazy Horse, still proud / Strikes fear among his captors / Their guns grow twitchy. (To Wounded Knee, 1870s-1890)
— H. W. Brands (@hwbrands) March 8, 2014
Brands, who began his twitter saga at 15,000 B.C. with the first peopling of the Americas and is currently chronicling the rise of John D. Rockefeller, says there is still plenty of history left to capture.
“I have no idea how long it would take me to get to the present,” Brands says.
“You cover the first 20,000 years [of history] in two tweets, but by the time you get closer to the present there’s a lot more detail to cover.”
When he is not teaching or tweeting, Brands is busy writing a biography of Ronald Reagan due to be published on Reagan’s birthday early next year.
Follow the saga @hwbrands.
This story is part of our yearlong series “Eyes on Innovation,” which explores UT’s world-changing ideas, fascinating discoveries and new ways of doing things.