Narrative History and the Collapsing of Historical Distance

Among the highlights of my Christmas was receiving Catherine Brekus’s recently-released volume, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, a fascinating account of an eighteenth-century evangelical woman whose life experiences intersected with, and speak to, several importance events and themes from the period. At the time of writing, I’m about half-way through and can’t recommend it enough. At a future date, I’ll try and post a more formal review (or at least lengthier thoughts) of the book, but wanted to briefly reflect here on something Brekus briefly discusses in her preface. “Reading Sarah’s reflections on her life,” Brekus explains, “reminds us of how far away the past is—but also how close.” Solidly grounding her subject’s experiences in its eighteenth-century context, she continues:

Sarah lived at a time when modern ideas about the reality of human freedom and the goodness of everyday life were still emerging, and we may find it hard to understand her unflinching belief in human depravity, her embrace of suffering as a positive good, and her fears about loving her family and friends too much. “The past is a foreign country,” the novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote. “They do things differently there.”

This is pretty standard fare from historians—especially those writing about the early modern era—and likely won’t raise any eyebrows among readers of this blog (it certainly didn’t mine). I was struck, however, by the rest of the above quoted paragraph:

But Sarah’s questions about the meaning of human life were ultimately universal ones, and her story can help us to reflect on our own understanding of the human condition. We, too, debate over how to define happiness, and we, too, wonder if there is any such thing as absolute truth. Sarah was profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment world in which she lived, a world that stood on the brink of our own, and although we may try to distance ourselves from the past by describing our culture as postmodern, we continue to wrestle with the legacy of the Enlightenment in its many forms—whether its defense of capitalism, its commitment to humanitarianism, or its optimistic faith in human nature. (p. xiii)

I was struck not because I necessarily disagree with her—I too have emotionally empathized and sensed common ground with historical subjects whose diaries and letters I’ve gone through and at times recognize questions, struggles, and truths of my own life in those of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century individuals I write about. At the same time, I’ve been trained to recognize the wide chasm of historical context and experience separating me from them and have spent no small amount of time stressing to students in my survey course, to family and friends who ask about my work, and (more often than I would like to admit) in both online and in-person political debates with others on the “Founding Fathers'” views on any number of contentious topics in contemporary political discourse.

Rather than rehash age-old debates over the historian’s craft, her/his/our ability to accurately understand and write about the past, and the ends (both intended and not) to which that study is used, I’m particularly interested here in better understanding the relationship between narrative history and the collapsing of historical distance. Sarah Osborn’s World is the latest volume to appear in Yale University Press’s New Directions in Narrative History series, edited by John Demos and Aaron Sachs. A previous volume published as part of the series—Craig Harline’s Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (see our own Ben Park’s thoughtful review here)—went a step further than Brekus’s volume on this front, placing the story of one of his own close friend’s conversion to Mormonism and subsequent leaving of the faith alongside that of a seventeenth century Dutch Protestant who converts to Catholicism. Where Brekus quotes L.P. Hartley’s famous quip in explaining historical distance between the researcher and her subject, Harline opens his volume by quoting Emerson, who (perhaps just as famously) maintained that “The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible. We, as we read, must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner; must fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience, or we shall learn nothing rightly.” To this Harline adds his own thoughts:

This book is about conversion’s most painful sort of tearing: that in families.

It starts with a story from the Reformation, to show how a family in that new age of religious choice might cope (or not) when some in the family chose one religion and some another. But it includes a story from the present as well, to show that the difficulties of conversion have hardly disappeared for families today, and that we moderns, who imagine ourselves far beyond the silly religious bickering of our forebears, are in fact wonderfully like them, and can therefore learn much from even the most obscure of them, if we would only look. For though our bickering may take on new forms, it is in spirit (and often in form too) much like theirs, and can just as easily lead us into the same terrible dilemma they knew: whether to choose our relationships of our convictions. (pp. ix-x)

Putting aside (if possible) the relative merits of such an approach, I wonder what it is about narrative history in particular that seems to lend itself to collapsing the distance discussed above. Is it a natural outgrowth of the approach (perhaps storytelling is one of those absolute truths Brekus mentions?), or is this something more calculated, the effort of authors and editors to both push traditional boundaries of historical methodology and to connect with a broader readership primarily interested in a good story more than an accurate understanding of the past in which it takes place (a related and important discussion in and of itself)?

10 responses

  1. Very thoughtful piece and interesting questions, Christopher! Unfortunately in many circles in academia, “narrative history” seems to have a similar negative connotation as that of “political history.” It’s something done by popular historians but not by “serious” academics. How many graduate programs offer courses in narrative historical writing (I say this as Yale is offering a course in the spring called “Narrative & Other Histories” taught by John Demos)?

    I think the ability of narrative history to “collapse historical distance” is largely due to its linearity. It’s much easier to achieve when one provides a direct chronological line that can itself be collapsed. It seems to be in our nature to be storytellers and lovers of stories. The chronological fashioning of a straight-up narrative appeals to our inner sensibilities regarding structure that render something easier to understand. This is why David McCullough’s works–long on narrative and short on analysis–sell so incredibly well while monographs languish on bookshelves waiting to be assigned in a graduate readings course.

    We talk so often about the chasm between academic historians and the general reading public but as long as we continue to (overly) value analytical history to the point that it implicitly attaches a stigma to narrative, that chasm will not be breached. The increasing degradation of the job market is beginning to force significant self-reassessments of graduate training in history. One of the alternatives we hear about all the time is “public history,” and I wonder if training graduate students to be better storytellers could enter into the discussion in that light.

  2. Perhaps it would help to talk some more about the distinction between “narrative” and “analytical” history. I’d like to have an example of an “analytical” study that does not belong, even implicitly, to a larger narrative — or, conversely, a “narrative” study, even unintentionally, that is devoid of analysis. What I’m trying to avoid here, obviously, is getting an important discussion tangled up in categories that are less absolute than they might appear at first glance.

    • Agreed. I don’t think using the terms “narrative” and “analytical” history means to imply that works are wholly one or the other. For me, McCullough’s book on Adams is a good example of narrative history that forgoes any real attempt at historical analysis. In terms of analytical history, think of any monograph that is structured thematically. Does the general reader usually have enough background to find engaging such works a rewarding use of their reading time? Sometimes, but I’d guess more often not. Popular history, in the end, is not about the difference between narrative or analytical history, but about entertainment. Also, most people tend to read things that reinforce their already held ideas, which makes one wonder if the nature of (contemporary) readers itself renders the discussion futile from the start.

  3. I think bringing Mark Salber Phillips’ Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820 (Princeton UP, 2000) might be helpful here: Phillips is useful, I think, because he stresses the multiple genres of historical writing over time, especially in his chosen field of British Enlightenment historians. Phillips has written quite a bit about “distance” as a key parameter of historical writing, and these terms are absolutely caught up in the question of audience, whether academic or non-academic, specialist or generalist, etc. etc.

  4. Reading public here. I have to say I somewhat recoil at the notion that the public needs better storytelling or storytellers. Good narrative is just fine thank you and if that is combined with perceptive analysis all the better. If I’m looking for good storytelling I’ll read fiction. My motivation for reading history is to understand why we as a society think and behave as we do. I get that from reading Gordon Wood, Perry Miller, Robert Wiebe or Jackson Lears but not so much from David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin. They’re all excellent writers but I’m looking for insights and that generally comes from analysis.

    • Well said, Paul, and thank you for commenting. However, you are not representative of the broader reading public. Also, notice how all four historians you mention were born between 65 and 107 years ago. It’s indicative of how the profession has undergone significant structural changes. It’s true that there are no longer widely read academic historians/public intellectuals like Richard Hofstadter. But there hasn’t been since Wood’s generation rose in the late 1960s-early 1970s.

      There are some academics who are jealous of the sales of guys like McCullough but then there are others who see millions of history books being sold and wish that history reading public would be treated to a more analytical history (McCullough’s books are fun to read but are little more than American hagiography, the kind of which would’ve made George Bancroft proud). When I suggest that historians would be better served by learning some of the craft of narrative, I do not mean at the expense of analysis. What I would hope is that academic historians could use narrative to get the medicine of analytical history, as it were, to go down easier with the broadest reaches of the popular history reading public.

  5. Thanks Christopher for this interesting piece. I wanted to suggest as further reading a series of posts about on the recently-launched blog of The Appendix: a New Journal of Narrative and Experimental History. (Full disclosure: I’m an editor and wrote one of the posts). I think they make for an interesting complement to this article.

    I’ve been loving the Junto by the way! Well done.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful responses, suggested reading, links, etc. I’m traveling right now and can’t give each of your comments the response it deserves, but this is exactly the sort of conversation I was hoping my post would prompt. Many thanks!

  7. Pingback: History Carnival 117 — A Twelfth Night Edition | The Recipes Project

  8. Pingback: Serial, Microhistory, and the Perils of Historical Research « The Junto


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