Monday, June 2, 2014

Lecture (16): On the Importance of Storytelling and Narrative for Historians and the Discipline of History

The practice of history writing is at once very old and very recent. On the one hand, people have for quite some time created representations of the past in song, pictorial depictions, and in written word. On the other hand, the academic practice of history is relatively new and in that short time it has slowly developed its own language, rituals, and logic, carving out a discipline that differentiates itself from the kind of representations of the past commemorated in memorials, brought to life in the movies, and works of what has been dubbed "popular" history. It is perhaps this monopolization of practicing history by academia that new PhDs with history degrees find themselves at a loss in an increasingly unfavourable job market. I can offer a personal anecdote that illustrates this.

This year I was a Teaching Assistant for two courses, the first an introduction to Theories in Women and Gender Studies, the tutorial for which took place at the beginning of the week, and History of Iran, the tutorial for which took place at the end. As we winded down at the end of the semester I was asked in the last week by a student in my WGS tutorial what I intended to do after I finished my PhD. "Teach of course!" I replied, as if there could be any other answer. I chalked up the question to the fact that my class comprised primarily of students pursuing professional degrees, everything from majors in Human Relations to those studying journalism. The same question was repeated in my History of Iran tutorial, a class that consisted mostly of majors in various humanities disciplines and the occasional engineering student. I was somewhat more surprised by their asking the question--a surprise that when I reflect on revealed more about my own worldview than the students'. It occurred to me that I was amongst those who assumed that students of the humanities eventually become academic scholars. It is this "of course" and the hierarchies it suggests that have been tackled in a not too recent article by Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "No More Plan B".

In a recent conversation with a friend about her impending comprehensive exams, I remarked that she was ready to take her exams and reminded her that the rite of passage that is the PhD has a way of making us doubt ourselves and forget we are for the most part intelligent, articulate, and often critical thinkers that having spent the better part of half a decade on their area of specialization know a thing or two. Why then do we forget that we have skills to bring to the table even if that table is not in the hallowed halls of academia? To be sure many of us love to research and teach and in fact those were the very reasons why I went into the PhD program. But the nagging question that still lingers is why do we think we cannot broach a much broader audience, a broader set of concerns, and potentially a broader set of career opportunities.

It is in the context of these growing set of interrelated concerns that William Cronon delivered his Presidential Address entitled "Storytelling" at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in 2013 made available here and published by the American Historical Review here. Part sermon, part manifesto, Cronon's address is an electrifying call to action for the future of historians, history as a discipline, and the practice of representing the past. It does not offer all the solutions but it reminds us of the core of our discipline and its potential going forward.

William Cronon served as president of the American Historical Association in 2012. He earned his baccalaureate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a double major in history and English in 1976, and holds doctorates in history from Oxford and Yale. He is the author of Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang, 1983) and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W. W. Norton, 1991). Cronon is currently the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Visit his website at

As a conclusion I turn to the words of Jane Austen, first brought to my attention by the epigraph in Nancy F. Partner's Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977). It consists of a conversation on history between Catherine Morland and Eleanor Tilney from Northanger Abbey
Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best. It is a most interesting work. You are fond of that kind of reading?"

"To say the truth, I do not much like any other."


"That is, I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?"

"Yes, I am fond of history."

"I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all--it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes' mouths, their thoughts and designs--the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books."

"Historians, you think," said Miss Tilney, "are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history--and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made--and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great."

"You are fond of history! And so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person's courage that could sit down on purpose to do it."

Further Reading

Cronon, William. "Presidential Address: Storytelling." American Historical Review 118, no. 1 (2013):  1-19.

Partner, Nancy. "Narrative Persistence: The Post-Postmodern Life of Narrative Theory." In Re-Figuring Hayden White, edited by Frank Ankersmit, Ewa Domańska, and Hans Kellner, 81-104. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Southern, Richard William. The Shape and Substance of Academic History; An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 2 November 1961. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1961.

White, Hayden. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980): 5-27.