Telling Stories at the AHA

As I mentioned in my first post on the AHA, one of the main themes of the sessions I attended was storytelling. More veteran historians assure me that this is one of the perpetual questions of the profession. Be that as it may, it was timely for me, coming in the midst of dissertation writing.

The storytelling theme was propitious because it brought back to mind discussions of narrative history from my coursework. At the “Clio’s Craft” session, a graduate student asked a great question about how to tell stories within the constraints of the dissertation. My answer to that question is, Pick the right committee. I’m fortunate that the professors I’ve worked with have paid a great deal of attention to the problem of storytelling. Jane Kamensky’s class on writing history forced me to write imaginative narratives, which I resisted at the time, but which I think have broadened my repertoire. On this point you can see Jane Kamensky’s article “Novelties: A Historian’s Field Notes from Fiction.” David Hackett Fischer’s idea of a “braided narrative” (presented in an essay that is less well known than it ought to be) shapes how I structure all my writing.1 I was also fortunate to have John Matzko teach me in a class on writing history when I was an undergraduate. I suspect that I’m not alone, and even if the profession produces a lot of rigid academic prose, it nevertheless values and encourages good writing.

The most intriguing idea I took away from Bill Cronon’s presidential address was an idea about narrators. Cronon remarked that nearly all history is written with a third-person omniscient narrator. (Maybe “omniscient” is a an overstatement, but it’s more conscise than “third-person knows-a-hell-of-a-lot” narrator.) What other kind of narrative could possibly work for writing history? These are the type of narrators that I could think of:

First-person narrator who learns as he goes. This narrator describes how he learned about the subject, probably to illuminate some point about the subject. I associate this kind of narrator with prefaces, introductions, and conclusions, which often tell stories about the research peripheral to the main story.

First-person narrator who is a character in the story. This narrator makes herself part of the main story. I associate this kind of narrator with anthropology or with certain kinds of journalism. The example that comes to mind is Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola, which, however interesting its exposition of Vodou, I find barely readable. I suppose this kind of narrator could work for a shorter piece of history, but not in large doses.

First-person narrator who is the historical actor. Allowing a historical actor to speak in the first person for the whole of a work would probably exceed the bounds of evidence (another point that Cronon made). But this can work for short stretches. Consider these sentences that I tried out in my revisions today:

According to Raphael Moses, Cohen kept a kosher household.

Raphael Moses recalled that Cohen kept a kosher household.

“I remember visiting her at her house in New York, in my boyhood,” wrote Raphael Moses, “when she was scrupulously particular in adhering to all Jewish forms, dieting and others, and she so remained” until late in life.

The first two are rather bland, and I’d use them if I was using the evidence to support a minor point. The third option has the virtue of telling a mini-story, where Moses gets the chance to speak for himself.

Third-person narrator definitely not omniscient. This narrator hedges every statement and emphasizes all the gaps in his knowledge. In other words, this is the narrator I use in all my first drafts, and it can kill a story.

Third-person narrator who brings together other narrators. This is the narrator in most historical writing: a learned narrator who uses evidence to craft a story. The attention to storytelling comes not just in crafting the main narrative, but in arranging the parts of the main narrative so as to let them be coherent stories narrated at least in part by historical actors.

The difficulty with this kind of narration that you can end up having a book that is like War and Peace in the sheer number of minor characters that float through it.2 This is something that I’m working though in my chapters: how many people’s stories can I tell in sufficient length without losing the reader?

Is it possible to have a second-person narrative? There are second-person narrators in choose-your-own-adventure stories: “You enter a dark cave, the stalagmites glinting in the light of your torch.” This won’t do for historical writing, except for very brief spells where you ask a reader to imagine a scene. But maybe an analogy might help.

I’ve sometimes heard it said that all writing—even scholarship—is autobiographical. One of my professors finally asked me what had led me to pursue my dissertation topic, which seems to me to be embarrasingly, obviously, related to my personal experience.3 As long as one doesn’t stretch the point too far, it does seem reasonable to think that what people write about is often connected to who they conceive themselves to be.

But might we also say that reading is likewise autobiographical? Do our readers see themselves in the stories we tell? It is common for students to refer to people in the past as “we”—at least in American history classes. I had an undergrad professor, an Americanist, who insisted in that in her classes we call Americans in the past “they” rather than “we” in order to create some analytical distance. I’ve even used that line in the classroom myself. But perhaps for the purpose of writing interesting prose, readers’ tendency to see themselves in what they read should be encouraged rather than discouraged. Readers need a character whom they can identify with, before they’re made to feel the past as a foreign country.4 Trying to foster this connection is of course not a second-person narrator in a technical sense, but since the narrator is often a device for embedding a reader in the story, perhaps the comparison is helpful.

How might helping the reader to identify with the story look like practice? I can’t answer in general, I can see the beginnings of how to do it in my dissertation. First, my dissertation will make the claim that conversions created a new kind of forced religious choice (in the Jamesian sense) shared by most poeple. I’ll need to connect that observation to the world in which readers live. This is more than just a writing strategy: if readers can’t see themselves in my story, then perhaps the thesis is faulty. Second, I think conversion is a common human experience. (Well, at least for the “sick souls” if not the “healthy minds.”) There should be a way to make these conversions feel familiar before they feel strange. In fact, that’s part of the point of the dissertation. For people where the conversion narrative is Protestant (my own experience), they’ll encounter conversions to Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, and so on.

Another point in Cronon’s address and in the [“Clio’s Craft”][] panel was the importance of emotion in writing history. So in a later post I’ll try to tell a story about my own experience of emotion in an archival visit.

  1. David Hackett Fischer, “The Braided Narrative: Substance and Form in Social History,” in The Literature of Fact: Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited by Angus Fletcher (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 109–33.

  2. I haven’t read War and Peace, but Dave Wedaman live tweeted the book when he read it, which will have to be enough for now.

  3. I’m surprised how long it took somone to ask me this. I mentioned to my advisor that he was the first to ask the question; he thinks everyone else is just too polite to ask.

  4. It is in part the absence of such characters, I think, that keeps the general reading public from the writings of academic historians, as opposed to popular historians: the public do not see themselves in the stories we tell.