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?