In a series of classic science fiction stories, Isaac Asimov imagined a scientific discipline called “psychohistory”: a way to predict the future of an interstellar empire. Psychohistory could not foresee individual choices, but it could supposedly predict collective behavior over the course of millennia. At one point in the Foundation series, however, a charismatic figure named the Mule threatened to upend psychohistory’s predictions: he was a mutant, acting in ways the original model could not anticipate. In the universe Asimov imagined, the Mule alone seemed to possess true individual agency. Resisting a powerful model of human behavior, he offered instead a story about a person.
This 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.
Shortly after the publication of Parlor Politics, Catherine Allgor was invited to reflect not only the political wives she’d written about, but also their husbands. Reflecting on John Quincy Adams, Allgor quipped “I like complicated men.” While tongue-in-cheek, Allgor’s comment undoubtedly reflects why historians decide to study individuals. Unpacking the layers of “complicated men” (and women) can make for a fascinating project. But historians have also had a complicated relationship with biographies. No doubt this is because, like many narrative histories, some of the earliest Early American biographies were written as exercises in nationalism, and/or with hagiographic tendencies. Moreover, when researching and writing on higher-profile individuals, many of the sources we encounter ourselves are of the narrative sort.
Once or twice upon a chapter, as you work to tell history as story, take comfort in knowing that even American sage Henry Adams sometimes had a not-great writing day. By 1878, the 40-year-old Harvard professor of medieval history was a polished scholar. Hailing from a family that wrote for the archive, he navigated easily the uncatalogued byways of an early Library of Congress. He swept up obscure state records and gathered local maps for his 9-volume History of the United States. As editor of the North American Review, Henry instructed freelancers to write “in bald style.” He sliced his private letters down to acid cultural commentary that, to the modern reader, feels meta-enough to border on code. Continue reading
Should 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. Continue reading
The most interesting thing about Richard Dunn’s “intergenerational study” of slave life in Mount Airy and Mesopotamia plantations of Virginia and Jamaica is its incompleteness. As Dunn notes, A Tale of Two Plantations is a narrative without “a proper opening or a proper conclusion.” His source base begins relatively arbitrarily with a pair of masters who sought to improve their record keeping and ends with the institution of slavery itself. This is tragic, of course, for our knowledge of the lives of the enslaved persons of Mesopotamia and Mount Airy are circumscribed by the ability of whites to track them. In Jamaica, that proves troubling in freedom while in Virginia and Alabama, thanks to better census taking, the lives of the families of Mount Airy are much easier to recover. These sources, of course, mirror the experience of slavery itself.
A century after the end of the War for Independence, New Yorkers continued to celebrate a holiday known as “Evacuation Day,” commemorating the leaving of the last British troops from New York City on November 25, 1783. It marked the end of a seven-year occupation by the British army who used the city as the headquarters for its North American operations during the war. But it also marked the beginning of a holiday that would be enthusiastically celebrated by New Yorkers for a century to come. On this anniversary, I offer the following narrative account of a day that played a large role in the city’s historical memory of the Revolution for more than a century, but was eventually displaced when it became incompatible with contemporary circumstances. Continue reading