The University of Texas at Austin
  • Tweeting History, One Haiku at a Time

    By Charlotte Carpenter
    Published: March 25

    history haiku

    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.

    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.”

    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.”

    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.

    Eyes on Innovation banner graphic

    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.

    • Quote 2
      MEK3 said on April 3 at 4:52 p.m.
      one will try new things / but the haters always hate / same ol same ol trolls
    • Quote 2
      Luigi said on April 3 at 2:27 p.m.
      These may be great tweets, But they're not haiku. A six word story is not necessarily haiku. Haiku is an art form that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.
    • Quote 2
      RL McGruder said on March 26 at 1:09 p.m.
      How fun - and it shows great discipline to be so concise when teaching(for this is just another way to teach!). I'm definitely following now!
    • Quote 2
      rudy melendez said on March 25 at 10:45 p.m.
      No better platform For the poems of Brand are great! Must it be twitter?
    • Quote 2
      Kamene said on March 25 at 12:25 p.m.
      Abraham Lincoln & Crazy Horse? Rockefeller and Wounded Knee? One must do better than banality. If this is "history" in haiku, it reflects its leafier platforms well. Where are the meaty rumblings that are the growing pains of our species? Where is the (literal) color? This is an insult to a medium with Twitter's sociocultural density. I see the same old grade school stories on a new page and we young devourers don't have time for it.
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