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.



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