Not Only for Readers: Why Scholars Need Narrative

1024px-Berlin_Universitaet_um_1850This week’s roundtable began with a reference to Kurt Newman’s confession, earlier this summer, of feeling “anxiety” about a defining medium of historical scholarship: the book-length narrative. Writing for the USIH Blog in July, Kurt charged that narrative tends to conceal the historian’s assumptions and methods. More specifically, he observed, any narrative will be constructed around an ideological telos. Therefore, the book-length narrative is a dubious vehicle for a scholarly argument.

In our roundtable, we have responded to this useful provocation primarily by assuming its truth. Narrative is a powerful means of ideological initiation; its power is what makes it so valuable to historians-as-artists when they try to communicate with a reading public. On that basis, we and our commenters have been discussing the various ways narratives can exert power. Sara Georgini explored the ways Henry Adams adapted medieval narrative strategies. Jessica Parr described using stories of George Whitefield’s life as a convenient, though dangerous, structure on which to hang an argument about his public image. In the comments, similarly, J. L. Bell observed that Alan Taylor’s book William Cooper’s Town usefully subverts the very expectations its narrative structure inspires in readers.

As we wrap up today, however, I want to return to Kurt’s perceptive critique. I am not sure our response so far is adequate.

We may—may—be correct to embrace narrative as a way for adepts to communicate truth to the unsuspecting. If we leave the matter there, however, we seem to be accepting the notion that narrative is a sort of popular weakness in which scholars as such would best not indulge to excess. I want to suggest something different: that narrative is precisely what historical scholars, as such, should produce—with deliberation, according to professional norms, and with as much analytic transparency as possible—in order to weaken the hold of unexamined ideology on their own work.

I see two main ways to make such a case. The more familiar argument flows from the premise that human experience itself takes narrative form, or, more specifically, that human selfhood is constructed in a process of narration. This premise itself, though intuitively appealing, does not speak to the philosophical aims of every historian, and it puts historians and some psychologists together on territory that is being colonized rapidly by neuroscientists, who do not necessarily privilege narration as a mode of understanding the narratives of selfhood. Nevertheless, this premise provides one way to defend narrative as a scholarly subject of investigation, and—because the only thorough way to document a narrative is to write a narrative—as a mode of scholarly writing. (This argument, it seems to me, aligns the historian’s work with the anthropologist’s and distances it from the work of the sociologist, economist, or political scientist.) For many historians I know, this argument is more than enough to justify a career in storytelling. I often use it myself.

But there is another way to make the case for narrative, an argument that may be a better rejoinder to Kurt Newman’s criticism of narrative’s concealments. It claims this: We are also concealing something important when we draw a dichotomy between narrative and argument. It restricts the extent to which the strictly forensic historian’s arguments can be her own.

A strictly forensic history will gather evidence and offer an interpretation, but that interpretation rests on assumptions about significance. In my view, determinations of significance rest on implicit storytelling: If one does this, then that may happen, and that may make one feel so, which may lead to such. Significance no less than selfhood takes a narrative shape. That means forensic history must acquire its underlying notions about significance from outside its own practices. Forensic history may tell me a death happened, or a birth, or a migration, or a revolution, or a working class; it cannot, without dipping its hands in narrative, tell me what any of those things actually means in final human terms. A death is meaningless except in the context of a life.

Granted: To define a life, either one’s own or someone else’s, is to make selections—to engage in subjectivity and partiality and unacknowledged omission—and ultimately to make a teleological judgment. There is no impartial way to describe a life, just as there is no impartial way to live it. (I would make this more pointed: There is no such thing as a non-ideological life.)

The famous elusiveness of objectivity, most scholars would say, does not mean we must surrender objectivity as an ideal. In debates over narrative, however, this concern is mostly a distraction. The real issue is that, when we limit the scholarly discipline of history to non-narrative forensics, our work is unable to offer even tentative or partial scholarly answers to questions of meaning. It must accept unchallenged, or even unexamined, the narratives handed to it by other kinds of scholars, or narratives written by the popular writers it scorns, or—worse yet—narratives handed to it by its own social or political context. Scholarly history thus becomes an ideological tool of others’ narrative practices.

In response, of course, one may point out that this is the condition of every scholar; any form of knowledge may serve someone else’s ends. One may also point out, more specifically, that a historian’s narrative is going to reflect the unexamined assumptions of her time and place just as much as an argument will—perhaps more so, since a narrative leaves most of its assumptions unstated, whereas an argument will at least attempt to make its assumptions explicit. And, of course, one may point out that criticizing “the book-length narrative” as a vehicle for historical scholarship is not the same thing as excising all narrative from history; drawing a dichotomy between narrative and argument does not imply that a work of scholarship should consist only of the latter.

All of this is true. Yet it does not change the ultimately narrative nature of historical significance-telling. Forensic history, written with explicit assumptions, must still assume a sense of human significance that is based on implicit narratives. Its explicitness, then—or its attempt to confine narrative to a small part of the overall scholarly project—may be another form of ideological disguise.

Thus, in my view, the question for historical scholars is not whether narrative is a flawed way of depicting the world. The question is how much we, as professionals who have uniquely relevant training (or should have it—but that is another discussion), will play a conscious and deliberate part in writing the long narratives that define our own (and others’) argumentative work. In other words, it is a question about how deep our scholarly inquiry goes.

Therefore, I think it is a mistake for academic or professional historians to accept narrative grudgingly, as a sort of concession to the power of imagination—or even enthusiastically, as an instrument of intellectual conquest—as if it were something extraneous to our proper analytic practice. Instead, we should embrace it for what it can be: our most distinctive and far-reaching contribution to the scholarly enterprise.


Image: The University of Berlin, now the Humboldt University of Berlin, ca. 1850.

9 comments on “Not Only for Readers: Why Scholars Need Narrative

  1. Jim says:

    To me, it’s as simple as realizing and embracing the concept that the point of communication is to get ideas across, in a way they can most easily and best be understood. Narrative styles most often seem to make historical content digestible by larger numbers of people . . . they make a history something that you actually enjoy reading, rather than something you feel that you have to “slog through” (and yes, we’ve all read THOSE, either willingly or unwillingly). If you can’t understand the arguments and points being made, then how can you appreciate them or argue against them?

    For me, narrative styles also harken back to the roots of history, as stories . . . as a construct of a set of facts (or perceived facts, at least) gathered to relate, and impress, and educate, and warn, and make people feel, and do any of the other many purposes to which people have put history over time.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jim. I certainly agree with you about narrative’s usefulness in communicating with many different kinds of audiences. I think we have to go further, though, if we want narrative to have professional respectability. It needs to be seen not just as something extra that historians can do to communicate more effectively, but as something that is essential to historical research itself.

  2. Tom Cutterham says:

    Great (and hopefully provocative) stuff, Jonathan. This seems to speak to the discussion in the comments on my opening post that has occurred in the last few days, especially about the expectations around narrative and objectivity that occur in specifically-scholarly (i.e. journal-based) settings. It does seem as if the field itself considers narrative techniques largely a bolt-on, a kind of ornament, that can disguise and distract, and needs to be kept carefully separate from forensic argumentation. I agree with you, that’s a mistaken view. So far we’ve heard from no-one willing to defend it.

    • Thanks, Tom. This is probably a good time for me to acknowledge that I have artificially heightened the disagreement here for ease of discussion—and I hope that’s reasonably clear to anyone reading this. I don’t think I know any historians who oppose writing narrative, or who always see it as something different from writing in an analytic/argumentative mode. But I do think historical professionals often talk as if narrative is something we should do in addition to writing scholarly history, rather than something we should do as an integral part of the scholarly enterprise.

      • “I do think historical professionals often talk as if narrative is something we should do in addition to writing scholarly history, rather than something we should do as an integral part of the scholarly enterprise.”

        I 100% agree with this statement.

  3. Brad Hansen says:

    This discussion of narratives made me think of J.H Hexter’s Rhetoric of History. Hexter argued that narrative was often the most appropriate form of causal explanation for the questions that historians try to answer and that there was no reason to regard it as an inferior form of explanation.

  4. Beth Kruse says:

    As a graduate student learning about narratives, this article was a light switch for me!! I am FB sharing and instigating discussions with other students in my program. Thank you!

  5. Harry Briscoe says:

    In his study of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Cleanth Brooks asserts that:

    “Most important of all, however, Absalom, Absalom! is a persuasive commentary upon the thesis that much of “history” is really a kind of imaginative construction. The past always remains at some level a mystery, but if we are to hope to understand it in anywise, we must enter into it and project ourselves imaginatively into the attitudes and emotions of the historical figures.”

    I think Brooks makes an important point here concerning how history should and needs to be written if it is to provide the fullest rendering possible of the past. Writing history needs more metaphor and should be painting the spaces that exist between facts.

  6. […] kind people of The Junto Blog ran a series recently on the topic of narrative and its vicissitudes, for which an earlier piece by me here […]


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