J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Power of Narrative in History

Last night I attended the last of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s four public conversations on history and memory, moderated by Stephen Marini of Wellesley. This event featured Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor of American History at Harvard and author of A Midwife’s Tale, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Although the announced topic was how objects—or, in the jargon of modern historiography, “material culture”—affect historical memory, the conversation was more far-ranging.

One of Ulrich’s interesting comments involved the film adaptation of A Midwife’s Tale shown a few years ago on P.B.S.’s American Experience. During the filming, the producers were anxious to tell the life story of Martha Ballard (1735-1812), the Maine midwife, in a dramatic way. Ulrich sensed that they were seeking a “heroic narrative.”

For historians, “narrative” is a label for a particular way of writing history: describe a series of events, in chronological order, on a human scale, emphasizing individuals’ intentions and actions as driving events. Many scholars try to get beyond this form, or at least analyze it critically. They point out that individual human intentions aren’t always as important as we’d like to think, mass actions and attitudes might be more powerful than individual choices, some historical events (such as climatic or demographic change) follow a much longer timeframe, this style tends to highlight the most powerful in society at the expense of the most numerous, and so on.

For fictional storytellers, a “narrative” is something slightly different. It’s a particular construction of events, again driven by human intentions and actions, but also with a resolution brought about by those actions. Fictional narratives derive their power by:

  • following individual protagonists as they seek to fulfill specific desires.
  • showing events arising from those protagonists’ (and any antagonists’) choices, and not from outside forces or actors or mere coincidence.
  • concluding with an outcome that says something, implicitly or explicitly, about those individuals and how the world works.
Having just come from a writers’ conference where I talked about plot, I was especially sensitive to this understanding of narrative.

Ulrich felt that the Midwife’s Tale filmmakers were in danger of creating a fictional narrative for Martha Ballard that, while it might please viewers, wasn’t supported by the historical documentation. She was even willing to leave the project over that issue. The creative team was able to adapt, and the resulting film is both very affecting and historically grounded.

And does it have a heroic narrative? At this point I piped up from the audience to argue that the Midwife’s Tale movie does offer such a narrative—not about Ballard, but about Ulrich. While the movie shows several vignettes from Ballard’s life, the storyline that runs through it and fuels it is the historian’s investigation of the midwife’s diary. An individual sets out on a quest (to learn what that document can reveal), faces obstacles, devises strategies, makes breakthroughs, and achieves acclaim.

Even the cinematography serves that storyline, as Ulrich described it. Producer-writer Laurie Kahn-Levitt and director Richard P. Rogers used framing, lighting, and focus to make our first glimpses of the actress playing Ballard incomplete and hard to make out. Gradually she comes into sharper focus, with stronger lighting and the camera capturing her face. We viewers thus gain clearer views of Ballard as the movie shows Ulrich coming to understand her diary.

Historians like Ulrich are usually reluctant to shape their books around the story of their investigations, to put themselves in the foreground—they leave that to their introductions and personal appearances. But every so often a history book will follow the actions of an individual investigating the past as a way to bring us into understanding that past. One example I recently read is The Telephone Gambit, by Seth Shulman (a Boston story, but from the 1870s instead of the 1770s).

A final thought on narratives and history: These days, our most popular cinematic narratives are adapted into yet another form, one which leaves the resolution up to the viewer. Or rather to the player, because I’m referring to videogames. Instead of watching Harry Potter, we get to play at being Harry Potter, and the outcome of the story depends on our own choices (and the reset button). A Midwife’s Tale has the equivalent of that form in the website DoHistory.org, which lets visitors take over Ulrich’s role and explore Ballard’s diary.


Monica Edinger said...

Great post. Provoked one from me. Here's one bit related to your comment that Ulrich herself is a "heroic narrative."

While I think this is an interesting idea, I’m not sure that I like it. Shouldn’t the focus stay on the history told? — on one woman’s diary to get a sense of her life in her time? To make the story about the historian getting the story turns it into something completely different.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that there are problems with foregrounding the historian, but I think there are also problems with focusing so tightly on the past that readers/viewers lose sight of how that picture has to be an interpretation based on an investigation of incomplete sources. Where the best balance point is might depend on many factors.

I like how your post connects this question to the issues surrounding historical fiction in the classroom. I think that narrative structure has an inherent appeal to people (at least in western cultures). Both historical fiction and “heroic narratives” in nonfiction take advantage of that appeal to tell stories about the past.

Those stories may reach a larger audience as a result, but those stories might also give a false account of historical developments.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but is not Professor Ulrich herself an historical figure? Like all of us?

(And, to be fair, I do note that she was willing to leave the project when Ballard was being made into a hero, and I expect that she was startled to hear that she herself could be perceived as one.)