Storytelling and the Purpose of History

I don’t frequently get angry, but when I do it’s typically self-righteous anger. That’s exactly what I found myself filled with as I read the Cronon article, and I couldn’t get past it. As someone who has been involved in living history and interpretation, I know how easy it is to fall into the ease of simply storytelling. How easy it is for someone who is not a historian to fully believe that all history is is storytelling. But, at the end, I don’t want to just be a storyteller. I don’t want to be an actor regurgitating meaningless lines to make a visitor content in what they see. I actively sought a career in history as opposed to English because I wanted to be so much more than a storyteller. So, what is Cronon saying in his AHA presidential address, “Storytelling?”

I would argue that, as the reader of his story, my reaction is more important than what he has to say. Isn’t, at the end of the day, a story composed to elicit a reaction? As Cronon explores the narrative style of historians such as Michael Pollan and filmmakers such as John Sayles, he makes the note that Pollan is an extremely engaging storyteller who can carry his reader through a myriad of topics and content, and that Sayles is able to fill his films with “evocative moments.” As someone who has long been involved in public history, I feel there is a strong case for not just focusing on these “evocative moments” or author-led narratives. At least, I never resorted to them during the five years I interpreted or during the 12 years I was involved in some way with living history interpretation.

When I was interpreting 19th century domestic life, my intention was not to evoke emotion from my visitors. Rather, it was to create a connection with them, a bridge into history, so that they could feel ownership over history in some way. My connections were crafted through food—by comparing and contrasting the meals that I was preparing and how they related to meals prepared today. I tried my best to dismiss the shock-value of having flies in my kitchen, or having fresh meat from a recently butchered animal. Instead, I tried to use those facts as jumping off points for conversation that was personal to the visitor. I only ever relied on shocking moments of emotion when I was personally tired or disconnected from the interpretation. On those occasions, I certainly did my visitors a disservice.

Third person interpretation has always served me well, because it allows me to create an active conversation between the visitor, history, and me—as Cronon says, Carl Becker stated the role of a historian “…was to place the past in dialogue with the present.” It was through giving these visitors a sense of ownership over the history we discussed that they were truly able to connect, to truly understand, to become interested in doing further reading and research.

Is first person interpretation, then, bad? It does prompt us to ask how disparate narrative and historical truth can be, since the modern individual has only limited resources. Is “acting” in first person dishonest to the truth of history because it is giving voice and autonomy to thoughts that may have never existed? I can see its utility; I can see the attractiveness of edutainment and the wish to engage people with theatrics. However, I see them as being historically dishonest, because we won’t ever know what was felt, spoken, explored. By participating in historical storytelling we are robbing history of the story it actually has to tell—we’re putting words in its mouth that don’t belong there.

Cronon’s point that historians must seek a fresh and engaging way to relate the stories of history is valid—without engaging future generations and the populace in general, the field will die. “Remember to always be on guard against boredom,” Cronon says. Digital history in the form of social media, etc., has offered ways for historians to stay relevant. Yes, this is true. However, history shouldn’t be turned into shock-and-awe journalism or a movie in order to stay relevant. There are other ways. History cannot be navigated by following a leader such as an author—to do so is to undermine the critical thinking inherently necessary to the profession of historian.

It’s all very well to tell stories, but it is important, in my opinion, to note lose history in the story. When non-historians become involved in history, it is a swift and dangerous fall into drama and theatre that represents nothing more than anachronism and simply evokes emotion without content. There’s a lesson to be learned from storytelling, and a balance to be struck between remaining relevant and retaining professional integrity. It is possible. And, now that I have concluded my raving thoughts on Cronon’s storytelling, I’ll perhaps be able to continue my assignments for the week. Cronon told a story; he evoked an emotion; he based his narrative on accepted truth and documentation; he appropriately achieved his goal as a historian, right?


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

6 Responses to Storytelling and the Purpose of History

  1. Kate Good

    Is it bad I could see you pretty much shaking your fist at the sky over Cronon? And that I laughed about it?
    I guess my commentary stems from your comment of “When I was interpreting 19th century domestic life, my intention was not to evoke emotion from my visitors. Rather, it was to create a connection with them, a bridge into history, so that they could feel ownership over history in some way.” Is that not making an emotional connection with a visitor? People get into what they are observing/learning by what they feel is important or interesting, which I would claim count as emotions in their own right. If I don’t give a shit about your explanation because you are not passionate (of which, you very clearly are!), then I’m not going to make that intellectual connection to history. My own emotions and passions are not engaged. Pretty much, I’m just staring at you to be polite, and may be zoning out. Clearly my previous statement is a total over-exaggeration, but for a reason. I feel that we need to find a balance between “storytime” and “ownership” of the past, which is extremely hard, obviously. I mean, we wouldn’t be where we are without our emotions for the field and our studies. Why should we expect others to follow our example without enticing them to join us on that journey?

    • saraevenson

      There may have, in fact, been fist-shaking involved. I should note that my strong reaction to Cronon is based on some past experiences with non-historians who have characterized all of history as a “story,” and have dramatized it to the point of it being fairly unrecognizable. To the point that I, at least, felt it marginalized the actual history in favor of shock value and evoking strong emotions. You are quite right that making a connection necessarily relies on evoking emotion from a person–though, does “interest” always need to qualify as an “emotion?” I agree that we need to find a balance, though I’d say it’s between storytelling and critical analysis. If there’s no body to the story, couldn’t we just leave it to a novelist or actor to create?

  2. davidatkins

    I can totally see you shaking your fist at the Cronon article. I had a different reaction to the piece. I listened to his article and read along as he spoke (it was his outgoing presidential speech to the AHA almost word for word.) You could tell he has a true passion for history. He wants professional historians to produce meaningful research, articles and monographs, teach their students, and reach the masses with their work. Many historical works fail to accomplish the last point. Most non-professional historians would never make it through a purely analytical work of history, and in this respect the writer would fail to reach a larger audience. I do agree their needs to be a good balance between analysis and storytelling, but I think its the story that garbs a reader and makes them want to finish a work. Without the story many readers would stop reading. One of my favorite works, Redemption, by Nicholas Lemann, is a great story written by someone who does not consider himself to be a professional historian. Lemann is a journalist by trade (and was an English major.) His work is one of y favorite books because he tells a good story, and its also one of the books that made me want to study history. His work has body but it was his story that drew me in.

  3. Claire G.

    Hi Sara,

    By participating in historical storytelling we are robbing history of the story it actually has to tell—we’re putting words in its mouth that don’t belong there.

    What about history from the recent past? My main decades of interest are the American 1960’s and 70’s. It’s easy to find people who are still alive and willing to tell stories of their experiences from this time period. Specifically, I am thinking of oral histories. Of course, we can’t expect a person to be wholly (or even slightly) objective in recounting their own experiences, but I think stories can be an important component of history and are frequently much more engaging to listen to than dry facts.

    I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with, as a component of a historical narrative, a bit of an entertaining story. We live in an age of entertainment. With support for the Humanities dwindling in this country, maybe this is an effective was to stay relevant. I am not suggesting that there should be less rigor in the study of history by any means. But I agree with David that the telling of a good “story” can be an effective way to engage the public and arouse interest.


  4. faithskiles


    I really appreciated your perspective on Cronon’s speech. I think we all bring past experiences to our shaping of critical thought, and these are important. Since my past experience is of “dry” uninteresting history, your perspective is wonderful in giving me a more-rounded picture. And I believe your writing goes to prove that real true stories can be great to read when written well.

  5. Kevin "Tiny" Dawson

    I agree that storytelling is definitely part of the “telling” portion of history. As a reenactor for different time periods in history, I find myself trying to describe what it may have been like during those times which I am portraying. I prefer to call myself a living historian or historical interpreter, as I utilize source material that I uncover in my research to shape the stories for my “impression.” I have worked at Colonial Williamsburg as an historical interpreter and evening lanthorn tour guide, as well as the assistant site manager/educational director at an 1850 working farm called Meadow Farm Museum. I am able to utilize several different styles of interpretation, be it 1st person where I take on a certain persona, or person from the period, or 3rd person where I talk about what “they” must have lived like. I feel that this is a very important aspect of history. It is my firm belief that history is truly the telling of the “story” of the past. We as historians need to continue on with the telling of those stories, yet we also need to be critical/analytical of what we “tell.”

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