There’s an interesting post over at Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf. Its main concern is the state of Civil War historiography, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role of narrative in historical writing.
Narrative history is one of those loaded terms. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (who is a first-rate scholar) had recently put out a successful book with a commercial publisher. One day in class, the subject of “literary” history came up. The professor made some wry remark about having “gone over to the Dark Side.” He wasn’t talking about writing a popular book. He was referring to its narrative format.
Part of me gets this dichotomy between narrative and analysis. I completely agree that the historian’s reason for being is to understand the past and then to convey what he’s found. The historian is not first and foremost a storyteller—although if he tells a good yarn in the process, then so much the better. Few things irritate me more than reading Amazon.com reviews in which the reader says he loved a history book because “it was just like reading a novel,” or because he “got so caught up in the story.” And I’m fully aware that a narrative framework imposes certain limitations on the historian, as does any other framework.
Still, I think we tend to draw too stark a distinction in terms of quality and seriousness between narrative history and whatever else it is that narrative history isn’t. Most narrative history, if it’s written by any scholar worth his salt, will almost inevitably analyze and explain as well as relate the course of events.
I’d submit that every narrative historian, to one degree or another, will use the technique that David Hackett Fischer—whose body of work I admire as much as that of any living historian—calls “braided narrative.” In two outstanding books, Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, Fischer unashamedly employs a chronological approach, while interweaving analysis throughout. The narrative and analysis work hand-in-hand to relate the events in question as completely as possible. It’s an extremely effective approach, but I think the main difference between Fischer and other writers of narrative is that he’s more explicit about employing it, and employs it more extensively. Any writer of history who uses a narrative framework will have to weave in some analysis to one degree or another, simply because you can’t really explain anything without doing it.
Actually, it’s worth asking when a given historical work becomes narrative history. Is it when chronology is the main organizational technique? That raises some problems. Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom is generally chronological, but I don’t think anyone would call it a narrative. Technically it tells a story—the story of colonial Virginia’s plantation labor system and its impact on notions of liberty and race—but within that general chronological framework, it’s thick with analysis.
Does a historical work become narrative when it relates a discrete sequence of events, following principles of time and location? This, too, is somewhat problematic. The author of even the most straightforward campaign study or account of a particular event (or series of events) will periodically stop his account for exposition or to summarize a conclusion. Indeed, when John Demos wrote The Unredeemed Captive, his primary motive, as he says, was to “tell a story,” and that’s exactly what he did. But major portions of the book are pure analysis and exposition. Demos uses the story as a means to dissect colonial family life, Indian culture, French missions, and so on. The book is as much an examination of the three-way relationship between English, French, and Indians in early America as it is a relation of the story of its main characters.
In fact, the history books that seem to me to be closest to pure narrative are the volumes in Allan Eckert’s “Winning of America” series. And they contain so much imaginative reconstruction that tthey seem to me to be more non-fiction novels than historical works, so even here the designation “narrative history” is questionable.
I don’t think writing narrative is tantamount to going over to the dark side. The only dark side in historical writing is doing bad history. There’s definitely plenty of bad narrative history out there, just as there’s plenty of mediocre analytical history. What separates good historical scholarship from bad is the quality of the questions asked and answers provided.