Framing

For my last blog post I am going to focus on some of my closing thoughts about the course as well as the Malaysia Flight 370. All that we have read about disasters has really shaped my opinion of what a disaster is. I used to think strongly that disasters must have a strong element of surprise or unexpectedness, but over the course, but especially in yesterday’s discussion I no longer think that is true. I thought that Betsy’s point in class yesterday about the Ogallala aquifer depletion was excellent, we know what we are doing, and we know what it is leading too, but it will probably still be framed as a disaster when we finally deplete it. This moves me to what I think the definition of disaster is, the exposure a flaws in our systems that strongly disrupts or destroys the system on a large scale.

This brings me to the Malaysia Flight 370. While it certainly was unexpected, what really made the case intriguing wasn’t the probable death of 200+ people, but the fact that in this day and age we can lose planes. While plane crashes often result in deaths, and are unexpected, they aren’t usually considered disasters. I think this is because they don’t disrupt the system or show a major flaw in it. Planes keep flying, and policies on the aggregate don’t change. With the Malaysia flight there has been a multinational many week long search for the plane, and widespread discussion on how to prevent losing planes.

Finally, I am going to walk back a bit on my point from a few days ago about narrative history and the dangers of moralizing. I think Wells made a great point that Cronon was not arguing that historians should moralize history, but present the history in a way for the reader to make their own moral judgements. But I still do stand by that sometimes “boring non-emotional history” is both useful and interesting. I’m glad that I raised some discussion and enjoyed having this class with everyone!

 

Takeaways

For my last blog post I figured I would save it for the end of the semester to comment on things that I felt either stuck with me or opened my eyes to different approaches on history. I think Cronon was a perfect piece for the end of the semester as Professor Shrout explained to Wells that Cronon gave us an authoritative perspective on historical writing and narrative just as we were filled with months of thoughts and opinions. I’m not sure I’m going to have the same takeaway as Wells did, coming to have a greater appreciation for historical narrative and storytelling, but I did takeaway something I think will give me a different perspective on the last year of my journey as a history major as well as my major thesis coming up next semester.

Cronon’s work and our subsequent class discussion today made me realize that regardless of the sources I use, the historical facts in play, or previous scholarship on the topic, I alone can create my story. In essence, we have all the tools in front of us to shape history in whatever manner to provide us with the message we want to send to our audience. Whether that means picking the starting and stopping points, the type of primary sources, the certain perspective of the subject, the different kinds of voices, or even the moral questions you want to ask or answer; the story you create is entirely up to you. Many of us, I would assume, feel the need that we have to take stories of the past and comment on them now to make our point, however; I think we need to expand our commentary as young historians and realize that we can create new stories that explain the history we want told and ask the questions we want to be answered. I just hope this epiphany is in time to make my mark on history. Also, CT tremendous closure to the course. Swanson, out.

History-the art of storytelling

Surprisingly unexpected, this narrative by Cronin does not fit his own definition of a narrative. I don’t care about the Dust Bowl now more than prior to reading his essay. Cronin did, however, provide a compelling account of the scholarship attributed to the Dust Bowl. Within this account, Cronin formulates and sheds light on arguments made regarding this period as well as history as a whole. He uses these varying accounts about the same traumatic event ask an age-old historical question, “how [do] two competent authors looking at identical materials drawn from the same past reach such divergent conclusions?” He further emphasizes that their conclusions are different because the stories they tell are different. I disagree with Cronin’s assertion that this is difficult to comprehend. Everyone obtains different biases from their varying experiences. As Cronin later explains, historians pick and choose the information they use to prove their point. In Cronin’s words, narratives “inevitably sanctions some voices while silencing others.” He eventually comes to these conclusions, but it takes him too long to arrive there in my humble opinion.

Cronin does convince me that the Dust Bowl can be categorized as a Gilded Age Disaster. Previously I thought the Gilded Age ended when the progressive era began prior to World War 1. The Dust Bowl showed that humans need to recognize and accept the limits of nature rather than strive to overcome them. The failure of this struggle epitomizes the Gilded Age. Consistently humans try to “cheat the system” by over-producing, over-working, and over-consuming all while negating common sense for safety and proper production methods.

I enjoyed Cronin’s tie in with the political culture of the period. The propaganda film that we watched by Pare Lorentz emphasized the “naturalness” of the Dust Bowl and the benefit of the government. Characterizing the environmental conditions as “inevitable” truly takes blame away from the farmers and the government. Lorentz’s film, in Cronin’s words, conveys how government interfusion of “technology, education, cooperation, and state power would…avert tragedy.” Cronin pits Lorentz’s work against the more recent scholarship of Paul Bonnifield that views the government intervention as detrimental to the recovery process. Bonnifield claims that it was “the people who lived there not government scientists, who invented new land-use practices that solved earlier problems.” I think there’s a happy medium between these two conclusions. The government scientists had many more resources at their disposal and were able to work in a less eminent environment while the farmers obtained the hands on experience.

I’m going to agree with Wells here, sorry Dan. I think the emotionless, strictly factual based history does very little to advance our society. Often we write history and remember history to effect (or affect? I’ll never know) our future. Without the emotional pull, history is dry and almost meaningless. It’s the individual stories and the sympathetic nature humans crave that brings history alive and establishes its meaning. There’s a huge difference in reading how the Nazis in WWII used killing squads to eradicate Jews from Poland killing thousands of men, women, and children; and reading a specific story of one of these families where one member survived (boy, that escalated quickly). I think we read facts or figures and say, “wow, that’s a lot of people. That’s terrible.” But when we can associate the facts with much more intricate detail that we can sympathize with (a family’s struggles, for example), then history becomes much more meaningful.

And I leave you all with this:

Moral History: William Cronon, Narrative, and the Moral Imagination

I appreciate Cronon’s piece and believe it’s a valuable conclusion to our semester’s readings. For all of our in-class debates about the merits of narrative history, I wish that we had had some exposure to Cronon beforehand to inform our discussion.  Our readings this semester—from McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood to Larson’s Isaac’s Storm—have certainly fostered my own appreciation for narrative histories. But Cronon offers an interesting element of narratives which I hadn’t considered before: the moral dimension of history. As he writes, “historical storytelling keeps us morally engaged with the world” (1375). And his conclusion is an interesting one because, in many ways, it echoes that of that of Edmund Burke, who first penned the term “moral imagination.” According to Burke, the “moral imagination” was the human’s perception which transcended personal, momentary experience and informed one’s ethical judgements. Art and poetry, according to Burke, shaped and directed it’s course. Cronon’s view of narrative is similar, merely exchanging art and poetry for historical storytelling. His argument is rather straightforward: human events and conflicts form our values; historical narratives bring order and precedent to those values, forming “our chief moral compass” (1375).

I happen to appreciate Cronon’s suggestion; my colleague Dan seems to think otherwise. As he sees it, any moral interpretation of history blurs the facts. If moralistic narratives become the predominant historical methodology, he writes, “history will become nothing but an over dramatized HBO version of the current academic field.” Instead, he claims, we ought to strive for  “more objective histories.” He poses the question: “is being emotionally moved necessary to the study of historical events?”

Well, certainly not. But to be clear, Cronon is addressing historical expression, not historical research. Dan is right to think that historians shouldn’t  need to bring boxes of Kleenex with them to the archives. But if Cronon is right in saying that “the questions [historians] ask are all about value,” then questions of moral value are reasonably pertinent—if not necessary (1376). Furthermore, it would seem that to write a good history, the historian ought to engage—at least implicitly—in the moral dimension of her work. Human actions, after all, carry a moral weight, and its up to observers to determine the merits of those actions.

Where I think some—like Dan—may find fault in a moral, historical narrative, however, is in its presumed shift in focus from concrete analysis to abstract description. But according Cronon’s stipulations, to “moralize history” does not water down it down; nor does it alter it. As Cronon writes, readers of history “cannot escape the valuing process defines [their] relationship to it” (1375). What’s important to note here is that, in Cronon’s view, readers do the “moralizing,” not the historians. Certainly a historian crafting a narrative can mold it with various biases—a fact which Dan seems to target exclusively with his “politicizing history” comment—but ultimately, according to Cronon, the historian’s work merely forms the “telos against which [readers] judge the . . . morality of human actions” [emphasis added] (1375). So, perhaps it’s important to bear in mind that, for Cronon, his ‘moral imagination’ informs the reader—not the historian—and the historical craft is left objective and intact.

 

 

The Inherent Dangers of Narrative

In his piece “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” William Cronon expertly interrogates narrative as a form of storytelling. Cronon suggests that narrative’s most impressive strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. As we saw while reading Johnstown Flood, certain narrative forms have the unique ability to convey history as a “story” (Cronon 1349). McCullough’s narrative sensationalized the history of a small town and an under appreciated disaster memorably, which ultimately enabled me to remember specific facts about the flood than I probably would not have had I learned about it from a traditional textbook.  Yet Cronon also warns about the inherent dangers of narrative, asserting that “in the act of separating story from non-story, we wield the most powerful yet dangerous tool of the narrative form” and that “[narrative] inevitably sanctions some voices while silencing others” (1349-1350).

Cronon points out that the differences between Bonnifield’s rendition of the Dust Bowl and Worster’s likely are the result of the inherent shortcomings in the narrative form. Each tells a story, yet they tell their stories from entirely different perspectives and thus arrive at varying outcomes. (Cronon 1348).

In an effort to illustrate the tendency of narrative to ignore sides of each story, Cronon rehashes Frederick Jackson Turner’s history of the West. Cronon suggests that Turner created a narrative that “[made] the Indians the foil for its story of progress…[making] their conquest seem natural, commonsensical, inevitable” (Cronon 1352). Turner’s narrative illustrates the ease with which certain pieces of history are ignored in favor of creating a coherent narrative.

On another note, Betsy points out in her post the strength’s of Cronon’s article when compared to Koppes’s. Koppes’s blatant preference for Worster’s work over Bonnifield undermined the authority of his review. Cronon, on the other hand, regards both writers as “competent” and respectively presents each of their arguements (1348). His objective approach to each author’s argument creates a pleasanter read that appears more informed and believable.

Why do History Anyway?

At the heart of Cronon’s piece, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” is a discussion of the veracity of the narrative form of history. Cronon attempts to assign value to the narrative form, by stating that narrative is essentially fundamental to our experience as humans permeating our lives down to the very way that we conceive of time and events. He conducts his investigation by surveying three specific narrative veins within the literature created on the subject of the Dust Bowl, illustrating how each uses narrative to accomplish the telling of radically different histories. Cronon does not seem bothered by this multiplicity of narrative; in fact, he thinks that it is positive.

The blog seems to be steeped in debate about whether or not Cronon’s assertion that narrative history leads ultimately to the creation of moral truth. Dajames objects to this in his piece specifically, saying that the privileging of moral truth prevents us from valuing in a sense objective truth. However, I don’t think that this is the most interesting part of the piece. Whatever we could argue about how moral truth is manufactured, or how valuable it is in comparison to objective truth is not nearly as interesting as his assertion that who we are has a fundamental impact on the histories we write. Furthermore, our position in an academic community (and otherwise) impacts our decisions as well. It is the idea that encoded within each history textbook is the fingerprint of its historian tells us something fascinatingly useful about history as a practice.  History is about identity.

There are several theories and methods, each with entire schools of historians saying this is the best way to discover the objective truth that will rise from the causal relationships that can be identified from a sequence of events. Each historian accuses the others of being near-sighted, far-sighted, reductionist, and so on. The real lesson that narrative history teaches us most clearly, as Cronon alludes to in his article, is that our histories are as plural as the people who walk the earth. We use history to piece together the stories that form the foundations of our identity. Objective truth is impossible to achieve, and separating a man’s writing from his bias is arguably more so, but understanding the significance of a written history as a whole can help us understand who we are. That is why, despite no real method to write history with an accuracy that will produce objective truth, we will always write, read, and study history. History is as close to us and the flesh that covers our beating hearts.

Nature in narratives and our role as storytellers

Cronon prompts an interesting discussion on the role of nature in narratives, one that I think Koppes lacked, and that is: although nature, in and of itself, is not always linear, why and how do we fit it in to a narrative structure? “Environmental history sets itself the task of including within its boundaries far more of the nonhuman world than most other histories, and yet human agents continue to be the main anchors of its narratives.” This problem of framing the role of nature is especially tricky when we think about nature in a nonlinear sort of way. Sometimes things in nature are cyclical and at times random, so how do we condense nature into a narrative structure?  Should we? And moreover, we tend to talk about nature in terms of its instrumental value at the sake of its intrinsic value, which creates an interesting problem when we try to determine its importance.

One of the things I think we need to be especially wary of is the tendency to reduce nature’s implications to binaries such as good vs. bad, helpful vs. harmful. Because if postmodernism has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be skeptical of our epistemological lenses. And yet, this fear shouldn’t stop historical inquiry. I think Molly wrote it best when she said, “He believes that ‘historical storytelling helps keep us morally engaged with the world by showing us how to care about it and its origins in ways we had not done before’ (1375).  Even if narrative histories are malleable, they help humans today stay morally engaged.  Historians’ efforts are not futile, even in a postmodernist society.”

I’m particularly concerned with ensuring that nature in an objective form is represented in history. But this is difficult when “Nature is unlike most other historical subjects in lacking a clear voice of its own” while simultaneously being anything but silent. We interpret nature’s meaning from our own human values and we can’t always stay true to the facts that are presented. This is why Bonnifield and Worster came to such different conclusions. But as Molly said, this may not always be bad if we can keep humans today morally engaged.

Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer

And this got me thinking about the current discourse surrounding the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. It is a shallow water table aquifer located under the Great Plains that depleting rapidly as a result of agricultural irrigation and drilling for oil and natural gas. The dilemma here, and like many other environmental issues, is how do we frame this event so that we as humans can understand the potential ecological damage? Of course here we are framing different problems, but Cronon’s article can be helpful in thinking about how we construct discourse today. Our human voices place value on nature, but activists who call for change should also implement strategies other than narrative; narrative only takes us so far. Resources such as maps, art, and hard science reports can animate nature’s important position as a stakeholder.

Too Much of a Good Thing

While I generally liked Cronon’s piece, I have to disagree with Molly’s appreciation for Cronon’s point that historical storytelling helps keep us morally engaged. While I think that there is a place for narrative history, I feel that too much much of it will just end up making more objective history more cloudy and harder to see.

I disagree with Cronon’s assertion that competing narrative will help lead to moral truths. With the example of the dust bowl, I feel that comparing Bonnefield and Worster’s arguments won’t lead to moral revelation, but rather a stale political debate. While there is a place for political debate, I don’t not think that it should be in the realm of history. I feel that more objective histories should be written, and if then scholars want to use those to support a political debate that is fine, but that politicizing history is wrong. On page 1374, Cronon writes that “my list of ‘significant Great Plains events’ surely had no effect on anyone’s emotions or moral vision, whereas I doubt anyone can read Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl without being moved in one way or another.” While I believe that his point is certainly true, is being emotionally moved necessary to the study of historical events? While no history can ever be truly objective, I think it is important for historians to try and be as objective as possible when writing histories, especially when the events studied already have some implicit emotional cache, like slavery or the War on Terror. I fear that though interesting, if moralistic narrative histories take over the field that history will become nothing but an over dramatized HBO version of the current academic field.

The Threat of Postmodernism: How Narrative Histories Keep Readers “Morally Engaged”

William Cronon’s “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative” attempts to explain how two historians, Bonnifield and Worster, examined nearly identical sets of facts, yet came to radically different conclusions about the causes and lasting effects of the Dust Bowl.  Cronon posits this is possible because of the powerful influence of narratives and stories in both history and environmental studies.

Cronon makes his point by first exploring how Bonnifield and Worster came to different conclusions.  He suggests that each chose a different story to tell.  Bonnifield wrote a progress narrative based upon narratives of other historians and environmentalists like Webb and Malin who depicted the settlement of the Great Plains as a “dialectic between a resistant landscape” and the innovative settlers who tamed it (1355).  By contrast, Worster told a declensionist tale, mostly aligning his narrative with that of the New Dealers.  Worster broke from the New Dealers, however, when he claimed that the efforts of the New Dealers “did nothing to address the basic contradictions of capitalism itself” (1364).

Next, Cronon discusses possible reasons humans feel compelled to tell stories, even when nature and the universe do not.  He points to two possible reasons: either we cannot do justice to either nature or the past no matter how hard we try so we use what we know or narratives are “fundamental to how humans organize our experience” (1992).  While the two ideas are similar, the first, Cronon points out, implies narrative histories are futile, while the second is more optimistic.

Finally, Cronon asks: what defines a good narrative history in our postmodern society?  Histories must be true and complete, they must make sense, and they must be written with the knowledge that others will critique and comment on them.  Cronon seems really disturbed by the postmodernist idea that the past is infinitely malleable.  He worries that this could undermine the “entire historical project” (1374).  I think Cronon assuages his fear in his fourth edition of “A Place for Stories.”  He believes that “historical storytelling helps keep us morally engaged with the world by showing us how to care about it and its origins in ways we had not done before” (1375).  Even if narrative histories are malleable, they help humans today stay morally engaged.  Historians’ efforts are not futile, even in a postmodernist society.  Cronon used the competing narratives of Bonnifield and Worster as context to make this larger point about history and environmental studies.

Like AJ, I really enjoyed this reading.  I agree that Cronon’s point about the stopping point in narrative trajectory is really important in how we understand events in our past.  Moreover, I agree that this reading was useful in getting me thinking about my final project.  On page 1357, Cronon argues that earlier frontier histories were very localized but eventually became significantly broader, focusing on “civilization” and “man.” I made a similar point in my historiography about Spanish Flu texts written since 1920.  However, where Cronon argued that generalizing historical narratives often led to “erasures” of “Indians, women, ethnic groups, underclasses and others,” I thought that writing broader histories could help increase awareness and interest in Spanish Flu narratives.   Cronon’s point will help me refine my argument into something that will hopefully be a more thorough and balanced historiography.