The Question of Narrative

borgesdesmazieres2Should historians embrace the art of narrative, or treat it with more suspicion? In his review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton back in July, USIH’s Kurt Newman argued that “the book-length narrative” is not “the proper form for the presentation of a historical argument.” Narrative, he wrote, involves too much selection, too many authorial choices hidden from the reader. “Most importantly,” Newman suggested, “constructing a narrative is almost always tied up with some telos or end,” a teleology that serves as expression or conduit of ideology, pulling us towards the outcome we imagine fits. Narrative, in other words, is something more than reasoned argument. It enlists desire to shape the way we think.

For the rest of the week here at The Junto, we’ll be holding a round-table event on narrative in historiography, and we invite you to join in in the comments. What makes something a “book-length narrative,” or what distinguishes narrative history from any other kind? Are there alternatives to narrative that we should be adopting? How does narrative work—or fail—in journal articles and other non-book forms? We would love to hear about your favourite examples of narrative and non-narrative historiography. We’ll be sharing some of our own this week too.

Personally, I’m a fan of narrative. That’s because I think historiography is just as much an art as a science. We have standards of fidelity to the evidence that mark the boundaries of our discipline. Uncovering new evidence, or finding new ways to employ it, are exciting parts of what we do. But presenting and interpreting that evidence is at least as important. As Hayden White discussed over forty years ago in Metahistory, however we choose to do that involves some sort of emplotment, and therefore some element of ideology. To note every omission, to justify every authorial choice, would be to write a book that encompassed the universe—a truly Borgesian feat. The art of history, instead, is to shape those choices and omissions for effect.

I don’t think I’ll get a lot of pushback when I say that the master of narrative history in my own field of early national America is Alan Taylor. What I like about Taylor’s work—especially the early books, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, William Cooper’s Town, and The Divided Ground—is the impression I had when reading them that the story as a whole was meant to tell me something. As Newman points out, “narratives embody arguments, flesh them out, illustrate them, render them legible to readers.” Rather than constructing a narrative around an argument, Taylor seemed to let his arguments emerge from the stories he told. That gave those books a powerful subtlety, a sort of fractal nuance. Things always became more complex the closer you looked. In that sense, they had the texture of the past itself.

Taylor could only achieve that effect by refusing to render his arguments in schematic terms. Something else he gained from that refusal was a wonderful infusion of irony. At least, that’s how I always read the books. In my reading, each one of them was saturated with a moral condemnation of the private-property institutions imposed by Euro-American elites; but Taylor would never say that outright. Maybe it was just me, but those books seemed to drip with pathos. They moved me.

There’s a complex web of ideology behind that emotional effect, which Newman is right to want to investigate. Historians should be attentive to these structures, I’d argue, not only so they can critique them, but also so they can manipulate them in their own work. For me, the book-length narrative remains the most powerful form of historical argumentation. We should learn to encode our arguments the same way that great novelists and painters do. The aim is not just to be more persuasive, but perhaps to be more true as well.

15 responses

  1. For historians, I sense that “narrative” is the relating of events in chronology—and by “relating” I mean both describing them and highlighting the causal connections among them.

    For fiction writers, a “narrative” is more narrowly defined. It involves one or more protagonists with defined goals, obstacles to obtaining those goals, a series of efforts to overcome those obstacles and others that naturally arise, and a resolution that comes about from the protagonists’ choices and efforts and the factors laid out at the start. A resolution that depends on coincidence or outside factors or a deus ex machina is seen as narratively unsatisfying.

    That fiction-style narrative is, I believe, innately pleaing to the human mind (with cultural variations). That’s why historical narratives that appear to follow that pattern are usually the most popular. Military histories, stories of exploration and invention, true-crime investigations—those all have clear protagonists, goals, obstacles, and resolutions.

    Of course, real life doesn’t always fit that narrative structure. (That may be why it’s so attractive.) Thus, a historical narrative might distort a messy reality by reshaping it into a familiar, pleasing form.

    The mention of Alan Taylor puts me in mind of a later chapter in “William Cooper’s Town” when he raises questions about the significance of Cooper’s achievements as he’s described them so far. The book has generally followed the classic narrative shape: it has a protagonist (Cooper) with a goal (building a town in upstate New York, and making himself a big man along the way), obstacles, and resolution, seemingly from Cooper’s perseverence. But then that chapter points out [SPOILER] that other people had tried to build settlements at the same place Cooper chose, without success, and his own financial status was collapsing as he died. Cooper was just in the right place at the right time because of a combination of ecological, technological, and economic factors he didn’t understand. That chapter throws into doubt the very nature of the biographical narrative by suggesting that a protagonist striving against obstacles might not be succeeding or failing on the basis of personal qualities and choices at all.

  2. Narrative is not only “something more than reasoned argument.” It’s also, almost always, something more widely interesting than reasoned argument.

    We should understand and embrace the human desire for stories, especially if we want to communicate historical insights outside the academy. I don’t think anyone meant to say that reasoned argument is any less susceptible to telos than storytelling. I suspect the problem might lie in the possibility that narrative historical writing might try to hide the interpretation. Make authorial choices seem inevitable. Fool a public that doesn’t know any better.

    In my mind, this is just as likely to happen via unbalanced argument and piling-on of data that supports a particular interpretation while ignoring countervailing evidence. Seems to me the only major difference is that this type of material is less frequently read by the general public. So is the real issue not about choosing a form, but about choosing an audience?

    • I definitely agree the issue is choosing your audience. There are those, some who write for this blog, who turn their nose up towards the narrative; however, the thesis and argument can be fairly clear in narrative as it can be in any sort of monograph or analyzed subject.

      I agree that authorial choices are inevitable, I think every historian should strive to be unbias, whether it’s truly possible or not. I just read an analysis of the Soviet Union written by David Hoffman where his thesis in short was “The Soviet Union made good and great strives/the violence wasn’t really their fault.” How did Mr. Hoffman frame his argument? Well, he just, as you said, “piled up the evidence” on the side of public heath policies and elimination of unemployment. The purge of Kulaks and of intellectuals, which was, unfortunately necessary, was caused by the Colonialism created by the Tsar and Capitalist. Hoffman, of course, was attempting to build this argument to undermine the War Communism and terror theory. Hoffman’s argument was certainly unbalanced without a contrary argument within his analysis.

      Examining this method, one should ask, would Hoffman’s views of the Soviet Union be accepted in a straightforward narrative that told his thesis in a positive manner or does the analysis method allow him to make his argument under the guise of ‘preferred’ analysis and statistics?

  3. I’m a big fan of narrative history. As a student of Alan Taylor’s he impressed upon me: 1) the importance of using actual sources rather than historiography to create an argument; 2) relating your argument derived from those sources in clear prose.

    I now teach Narrative History as an upperdivision history course. Instead of writing long research essays, my students create the content for a website on local history. We use the local archives and public sites and then they relate historical content, based on available resources, to a broad audience. It’s a lot of work, but they seem to enjoy writing for a real audience rather than just me.

    • Hi Marie: I teach a course on New York State History and am re-working it to have the students do exactly what you are doing in your upper division Narrative History course. Would you mind sending me your syllabus? My difficulty right now is figuring out how to assess the students and grade them individually for what is a fairly substantial collaborative effort. My name is Chris Leahy and I can be reached at cleahy at keuka dot edu. Thank you in advance.

  4. Interesting implication: it’s pretty hard to write narrative history without actual sources. But people can argue about historiography or reinterpret other people’s sources all day long.

  5. I love a good story and so do my students. The exceptional storytellers, some mentioned in the post, allow us to use our imagination, a marvelous instrument. If told well they allow us to connect the past with our senses and feel as though we could be experiencing the moment with the actors. So I appreciate the giants of our field that are also great narrative storytellers because their stories motivate me to want to learn more and my students to ask questions, not just to search for answers.

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  7. Thanks for all your engagement so far, folks! I’d love to hear more from the anti-narrative side. What about journal articles? As I mentioned in my comments on Taylor, I think a really crucial aspect of good narrative writing is *not* spelling out in simplified, schematic terms the “argument” you’re trying to make. Yet that’s precisely what journal editors and reviewers want — at least in reports I receive, it’s one of the most common gripes. So can journal articles be narrative history? Should they be? I think (as some commenters suggest) it’s partly a matter of audience; but then, I don’t think narrative historiography is just for talking down to non-professionals.

    It almost seems like the two categories available are “scholarly” and “narrative.” And that applies to monographs as well as articles. That’s a little strange to me. Why are there such different sets of expectations?

    • It seems there’s general agreement that the general public cares less than scholars do about how a new interpretation is situated relative to the historiography? What if I went further out on a limb and suggested the general public cherishes fewer expectations about objectivity or neutrality? What if regular people are *more* comfortable than academics with the idea that anything they read is going to have a point of view? And that, given that, they’re looking for a compelling demonstration of that POV? Something, perhaps, easier done with storytelling than with analysis.

      • That’s a great point, Dan. It seems to me there’s a strange contradiction between the academic form’s demand for a clear thesis (doesn’t that make one’s point of view clear?) and the continuing commitment to objectivity of some kind. It’s as though the academic form asks us to separate out our viewpoint and commitments from our scholarship, so that readers can sift the two and use them separately–which might well be an impossible and misguided demand.

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