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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Monday, December 07, 2009

History and the Narrative Fallacy

Yesterday I discussed the appeal of narrative history that offers the same ingredients as a good fictional story: protagonists, goals, obstacles, resolution through internal forces. The protagonist can be a historical figure (or several) trying to achieve something, or a historian trying to answer a question. Either way, such a narrative structure turns a sequence of events into more than “one damned thing after another,” as Arnold J. Toynbee once characterized some other historians’ work.

The problem with a historical narrative is that it might not reflect real life. We all know that we do a lot of things every day because of circumstances, habits, or whims, not because we approach life with clear and unconflicted goals. We’ve all seen plans work out, or not work out, because of unforeseen outside forces or simple chance. We all experienced social, technological, or environmental forces that can overwhelm one individual’s ability to affect the world—what historians call “agency.”

Yet we still like narratives. We humans are pattern-spotting animals, and sometimes we even impose patterns on life to make it more understandable. A narrative is one such pattern, and a pleasing one. But that understanding of life may get in the way of real comprehension.

For example, the history of Paul Revere’s ride on 18-19 Apr 1775 is an exciting narrative. It offers:

Henry W. Longfellow made Revere’s ride a popular legend by squeezing out lots of the complexity. David Hackett Fischer wrote a much more detailed, accurate account in his own Paul Revere’s Ride, noting as he did so how the event had what Aristotle called “dramatic unity”—it took place within a relatively compact space and time. I myself recounted a Revere-centered version of the story for Boston National Historical Park last April.

And yet, as I’ve argued, Revere’s ride may not have really affected how the rest of 19 Apr 1775 turned out. Other warnings got through. The militia in Lexington and Concord had started to assemble even before Revere and his colleagues arrived, and spent hours milling around. The British troops weren’t really hunting Hancock and Adams.

Once those troops reached Concord, furthermore, the militiamen massed outside town weren’t sure how to respond; they spent more hours watching and debating, and pulled back after the first engagement at the North Bridge. Even after the shooting really began along the battle road, it’s not clear what the provincials hoped to accomplish. If they had cut off the regulars from Boston, would they have known what to do with them?

And then there’s the larger picture of whether what Revere did on 18-19 April, or even the whole Battle of Lexington and Concord, changed the split between Britain and its North American colonies. Was war bound to start somewhere fairly soon? (Had it already started in Portsmouth?) Was the political and economic conflict within the British Empire too far along to be patched up? Exploring those questions gets us into the realm of large social movements and economic trends, beyond the level of crowd-pleasing narratives.

And as for the alternative narrative form of historian as investigator, diligently gathering evidence to answer a stated question, anyone who’s done research knows that’s even more of a fiction. You determine the questions as you go along, evidence turns up in the most unhelpful order, and the end of the investigation is defined less often by your goals than by your deadlines.

Myself, I like narrative history. I like reading it, and when I plan a talk or article I almost always find myself thinking in narrative terms. I happen to believe in human agency, and in the meaning that accumulates from the sum of individual lives. But at the same time, I worry that narrative history can be a snare, a pleasant illusion of how events fit together that hides a more complex, messy picture.

(The image above is Grant Wood’s rendering of Paul Revere’s midnight ride from the Grant Wood Gallery.)


RJO said...

A very good pair of posts.

Two thoughts off the top of my head (without going to look them up):

In his historiographical introduction to Paul Revere's Ride, another point Fischer makes is that good historical narrative will give you a sense that, even though *you* know how things turn out, the players didn't at the time. If you don't get a feeling from the writing that things might have ended up differently, the historian has failed to convey the actual contingency of events.

And in parallel, I think in one of Ellis's books on Adams and Jefferson, he quotes Adams making his usual complaints about how he himself won't be well remembered while Jefferson will be idolized, but the complaint is based on the very astute observation that he (Adams) always remembers how chaotic and non-narrative the Revolution was, whereas Jefferson has a talent for telling compelling stories.

J. L. Bell said...

Both Fischer and Ellis have written about their belief in “agency”—that individual choices can have a significant effect on history, an idea some authors have cast doubt on. Ellis focuses on prominent individuals, so his retellings of major moments fit the narrative model well. (Some of Fischer’s books have that scale, but many other are very broad, beyond the scope of individual lives.)

The power of narrative history to make readers wonder, even briefly, how things will turn out is indeed another parallel with narrative fiction. In both cases, while we read, we should see lots of possibilities ahead. Looking back at the end, we should be able to see the logic of how events turned out as they did.

As for Adams and Jefferson, I agree that Adams often emphasized the chaotic nature of historical events to undercut his correspondents’ received notions about how fine and heroic the Revolution was. But in his recollections of events that he himself was involved in, such as the Boston Massacre trial, Adams almost always comes out the hero. (And if he’s not the hero, that role often goes to James Otis or Samuel Adams.) Jefferson was also more guarded with his recollections, I sense, so in the end Adams had more influence over our histories.

One telling that Adams and Jefferson both disliked was William Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry; both men thought Wirt inserted fictional details for Romantic effect. But that biography became immensely popular and cemented Henry’s place in the national history, probably because Wirt was successful in painting emotional scenes.

Anthony Vaver said...

To say that “The problem with a historical narrative is that it might not reflect real life,” is going down a rabbit hole with no end. Is there another form of writing that truly captures “real life”? How would we even know such writing when we see it? Paradoxically, the only thing that truly reflects real life is real life, and even then its participants are severely limited in their grasp of the contradictions, historic arc, and drama of their actions at the time. In many ways, narrative history can be a means of unearthing, organizing, and understanding the “more complex, messy picture” of an historical event.

Arguments over the merits of different forms of historical writing should not be a competition, but rather an acknowledgement of the strengths and weaknesses of each genre and an evaluation of whether the form chosen adequately meets the goals set out by the historian. I am a beginning student of writing narrative history, but I am thankful for the quantitative and thematic studies that I can draw upon to write what I do.

One of the merits of narrative history is its popular appeal. If we want people to engage with history, it needs to be presented in a form that people will want to read. I recently went on a “geology tour” of my town, and I was excited to learn about the rock formations, lakes, and small streams that I see when I take my dog out for a walk. Unfortunately, the person giving the tour spoke like a geologist and used a lot of technical terms. The potentially compelling drama of continents smashing up against one another to create mountains—even if such a process takes millions of years—was missing, and he lost the attention of me and my two daughters. He even apologized once for using such dramatic terms. He may have more accurately represented the geology of my town, but ultimately this representation was totally lost on me.

These posts on historical narrative (and the responses to them) are great and really have me thinking. I am currently in the middle of reading Jon Franklin’s “Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner” and thinking about how I can apply his methods to my blog posts on EarlyAmericanCrime.com. I highly recommend reading it to anyone writing narrative forms of nonfiction.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the book recommendation!

One possible challenge to writing narrative history in your field, I expect, is that sometimes criminals may just not behave like rational actors. I think of James Aitken in John the Painter (a.k.a., The Incendiary).

Although Aitken set out a very definite goal—to set fire to the Plymouth naval shipyard in order to aid the American cause—it’s not clear from the surviving documents what motivated him. And then he did things which don’t seem to add up. He didn’t read people well. I therefore wonder if behind Aitken’s action was a mental condition, as well as political thinking.

Narrative history may indeed reflect real life no more than a thematic or statistical study that any reader can see is looking at just a slice of life. But narrative history often claims to show what really happened. Joe Ellis’s books, mentioned above, suggest what important people were thinking at notable times. That illusion can be entertaining, even alluring—but also misleading.

Chris said...

I agree with RJO, great series of posts! Yet another reason why this is my favorite blog.

You wrote: "The problem with a historical narrative is that it might not reflect real life. We all know that we do a lot of things every day because of circumstances, habits, or whims, not because we approach life with clear and unconflicted goals."

Believe it or not I spent time as a movie screenwriter, had an agent, and made some money. Writing narrative is never easy and in the realm of "fiction" we are told to not resemble "real life" as that is why people go to movies: to forget about their real lives. We needed to write drama that is connectible to the everyday person, that takes them on a journey. [Though I will note that some of the most spectacular stories I have ever read were true!]

We write history to "remember" or recall past lives [for whatever purpose] and so therefore the natural way is to reconstruct it in as a familiar form as possible, and therefore it leads us to write in a narrative style. Also, events lead to other events, cause and effect and change over time, so that itself leads to a narrative, does it not?

It makes more sense to reconstruct the past narratively.


J. L. Bell said...

There’s a line about writing novels that probably also applies to screenplays: “The difference between real life and a novel is that a novel has to make sense.”

That’s part of the pleasure of narrative fiction, even the more realistic kind, I think. It organizes events in a way that makes sense, with cause and effect, a closed system, human agency, &c. That may even be escapist since real life isn’t always so tidy.

Narrative history may have the same appeal as narrative fiction, with the added bonus that it’s supposedly the way things really happened.