Category Archives: Historical Methods Assignment

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?

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On Compromised Sources and Knowing Nothing

As week two of grad school gets fully underway, I definitely shouldn’t be taking up time to write this. This is just for fun, though I’m not altogether sure when “fun” and “writing a blog post about history” became the same thing, or when “relaxing” involved doing the same thing I’m assigned to do for a class. Ah, well, things change. Isn’t that what history is all about?

During today’s Methods class, a classmate who works with modern history brought up that her primary resources are frequently documents that have been recently declassified. Many of these have been, at least in part, intentionally redacted by the government. As we were discussing how to use a document that has been blacked out in what seems like essential places, the thought struck me—isn’t all of history a redacted document?

My research interest lies in the 18th century, a time period from which adequate primary source materials still exist to complete meaningful research. However, instead of dealing with purposefully blacked out spaces, I must contest with gaps in time and matter. Missing documents, items that no longer exists, artifacts that weren’t properly preserved and now no longer exist—these all constitute the blanks that exist on these modern, declassified documents.

Time period of focus notwithstanding, there are other cases of this. As you begin to explore more obscure or marginalized branches of history, the blackness becomes increasingly prevalent. Given the nature of the study of history, a great many people and opinions were obscured from the pages that have created our history. As John Howard commented in 2001, “…queer history was not always documented. Letters were burned, lives went unremarked.”[1] While this is not an intentional redacting of information, it results in essentially the same thing. What makes these gaps any less tangible than those blacked out lines my classmate faces? A perspective won’t be seen, a voice not heard, an opinion discredited because there isn’t concrete evidence to support its existence.

While historians attempt to compile a truthful account of something, what are the implications of these gaps? Does it necessarily mean that the historian needs to inject additional interpretation? Is there a situation where a historian can allow the eloquence of the absences to tell a unique story? Is there any way for historians to address the gaps and blacknesses they face, and still have a meaningful conversation, fully aware of the fact that they’re all working within a potentially compromised set of circumstances? As I sit here blinking, wide-eyed, trying to think about this, the Tootsie Pop owl comes to mind. And all I can conclude is hey, “the world may never know.”

 

[1] John Howard, introduction to Modern American Queer History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 10.

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Hidden American Power: The Laissez-Faire State Revisited

I won’t say that I’ve had difficulty deciding what to write about for this first post. I will say, though, that I had a conversation this afternoon that solidified things for me. So, what do I want to write about? America, that’s what.

My inspiration conversation was a bit one-sided, I should say. I’ve found myself feeling a bit like an anthropologist during my first few weeks in Blacksburg. This is my first time in a completely new place, so perhaps that’s how it always goes—observing, tentatively participating, being completely baffled by something foreign, and starting the whole process all over again. That’s what I was doing this afternoon as I experienced large-scale college football for the first time. I listened to the people around me, politely nodded, and dutifully wore maroon. One of the bits of listening I did was the conversation in question, where I learned that Americans just want to do what they want to do, that we are a freedom-loving people who have a spirit that no foreign body or a government that seems to be expanding its bounds can quash. We have a Constitution, we have our Founding Fathers, we are free.

All through the potato chips and kick-off this conversation sat in the back of my mind. Even before this the careful craftiness of the assigned readings struck me. I started with William J. Novak’s article The Myth of the “Weak” American State before continuing onto our text, The Pursuit of History by John Tosh. While reading Tosh, I kept highlighting and taking notes, saying things to myself along the lines of “Wow, that theory is exactly the practice I just read about in Novak!”

Novak’s argument focuses on two points that the Tosh reading complements: first, the fact that there is a collective social memory that defines the American “state” as unique from any others—this “American exceptionalism,” as political scientist Stephen Skowronek calls it,[1] claims that America exists as an underdeveloped state unlike those found in, especially, Europe. Second, that the frame of study through which historians explored American statehood in the past has been limiting and hasn’t quite fit the American situation.

To my new friend this afternoon, America stands as a beacon of freedom in the midst of oppression. As Tosh pointed out, this is the result of social memory fixating on a foundation myth in which our brave and forward-thinking forefathers threw off the shroud of English despotism and created a nation that shied away from big government, a government that existed in part to ensure the liberties of its new citizens.[2] In my opinion, the American foundation myth isn’t wholly negative—it plays a large role in the positive nationalism that defines our state. It gives Americans just that, a foundation upon which to base their national identity. It’s the blind belief in the infallibility of this founding that can cause dangerous nearsightedness. As Tosh points out, robust nationalism can be responsible for repression and suppression in many negative ways.[3] Was this form of nationalism responsible for the development of a belief that America was, historically, a “weak” state? In part, perhaps. In another way, the historiography of American statehood was equally at fault.

The most interesting interplay between the Tosh and Novak works, though, comes when you look at the aspect of Novak’s piece that addresses how American statehood has been studied in the past. In his opinion, the development of the American state had been inappropriately studied through the same lens as European states. More importantly, through a lens that was developed during a time when European states were seen as “corrupt,” despotic, and totalitarian.[4] There simply wasn’t one clear way to compare the development of the American state when considered within the same analytical framework of 19th-century European statehood.[5] As Tosh discusses, though, history is an extremely nuanced field of study and draws heavily on other disciplines.[6] To define History as a humanity, a cultural subject, of a social science deprives it in one way or another of its multifacetedness.[7] Novak seemingly agrees, consulting theories of modern sociologists and political scientists in their application to this discussion. Indeed, it is sociologist Michael Mann who most succinctly explains the difference between the “strong” American state and the totalitarian European states that historians so long tried to differentiate from. “The American state,” he says, “…is organized against despotic power.”[8] This point is precisely where the issue of a “strong” versus “weak” American state is explicable—through revisionist history developed and studied by newer practitioners, the historic examples of despotic European states can be set aside, and the literal and implied reach of American government explored.[9] Again according to Mann, the strength of the American state lies in its “infrastructural power,” which is easily overlooked since it is horizontally dispersed throughout many aspects of society.[10] By shedding the weights of tradition, that faith in the power of precedent and respect for what has come before, these historians are able to more fully discuss the roles that power has played in American statehood.[11]

After experiencing my first Virginia Tech football game, I finally understand the concept of Hokie Nation. I understand why everyone proudly walks around with turkey-like-but-not birds emblazoned on their chests. The collective social memory of the Tech diaspora is strong enough to convince seemingly sane people to stand in a stadium and do the Hokie Pokie. Similarly, American belief in the laissez-faire mentality of the founding fathers has influenced centuries of citizens, to the point that deeply entrenched peripheral power is lesser than a hierarchical, totalitarian type of power. Until recently, the history of the study of history indicates that historians were approaching this topic through a limited window, failing to fully grasp the content with which they were working. Modern historians have teamed with other disciplines to begin approaching this in a new and unique way, and have offered alternative theories that, perhaps, better highlight the nuances of American statehood.

 

 

[1] William J. Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review (June 2008), 756.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History (London: Longman/Pearson, 2010), 4.

[3] Tosh, 17.

[4] Novak, 754-756.

[5] Novak, 761.

[6] Tosh, 52-53.

[7] Tosh, 52-53.

[8] Novak, 763.

[9] Novak, 757.

[10] Novak, 763.

[11] Tosh, 13-14.

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