September 26, 2005
The Future of Historical Narrative - Ammon
1. Bill Cronon calls his essay "A Place for Stories." What is the story that Cronon tells in his essay?
William Cronon's story is about the place of stories in historical research. Stories, or narratives, deeply impact our telling of history. History can not be told without story. History written as a list of events or chronology have little meaning for humans. We need not a list of what happened and when, but a story or narrative to make an otherwise incoherent chronology into something meaningful. A historical fact is just a mere string or thread of existence, it takes a narrative to weave that thread among others to create a tapestry, to create an image that is recognizable, understandable, and meaningful to the human mind.
Historical writings follow closely the narrative path of other literary venues. Cronon shows that historical plots seem to follow two major lines of literary convention, 'progressive' or 'declensionist.' The progressive story is an upward moving, ever increasing and ever more positive story were the protagonist starts as the underdog and ends up on top. The declension story is the opposite, a downward movement, a lineal digression of positive elements towards negative hopelessness. (7)
As in literary works, the historical narrative is greatly influenced by the choice of protagonist. Ranging from the individual (a single pioneer or settler family), to the group (the plains farmers in general), to the broad and encompassing (civilization, man). Who the story is about will have a great affect on how the story is told.
Cronon defends the position that storytelling affects not only the way we look on a historical topic, but also impacts the outcome of future events. In recounting the efforts by the US government to control the disastrous situations caused by the Dust Bowl, Cronon found that the New Deal planners argued that the 'progressive' storytelling of the past not only falsely portrayed the Great Plains, but was the cause of the disasters of the 1930's. In effect, claims Cronon and the New Deal planners, "bad storytelling had wreaked havoc with the balance of nature" (16).
Another important factor in the historical narrative is how the author begins and ends the story. "Where one chooses to begin and end a story profoundly alters its shape and meaning...refram[ing] the past so as to include certain events and people, exclude others, and redefine meaning of landscape accordingly" (19). Where the story begins or ends, greatly limits the quality of the story to be told.
Cronon, in the last third of his essay, finally delves into the reasoning why narratives are so important to humans. Stories are a uniquely human invention consisting of beginning, middle, and end. What gives a story its power is our ability as humans to compartmentalize natural events, or events in our experience of life, into narratives with a beginning, middle, and end, and thereafter, to learn a lesson from it to gain understanding. For this reason, Cronon argues, narratives and storytelling are an important part of historical research. The story provides a way for humans to debate, think, and ponder about humans interaction with nature and their own struggles with personal values.
Posted by ashephe1 at September 26, 2005 07:37 AM