Competing Narratives

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Blog Post 10 (for Tuesday, 5/6)

In “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” William Cronon juxtaposes contrasting accounts of the Dust Bowl. Bonnifield argues that settlers of the Great Plains demonstrated determination in the face of adversity, and the “nation today enjoys a better standard of living” as a result (1348). Worster argues that settlers of the Great Plains precipitated ecological and economic disaster by engaging in a culture that “deliberately, self-consciously, set itself [the] task of dominating and exploiting the land” (1348). Both authors considered many of the same materials, but reached drastically different conclusions. Wells writes: “there seems to be a fundamental tension in interpretations of the Dust Bowl.” Certainly there is. But competing narratives are not particular to this event— rather, they form the fiber of all good history.

For example, last week we watched a 1937 film about the rise and fall of the Great Plains farmers. By celebrating the advent of World War I as a “day of new causes, new profits, new hope,” the film offers a different perspective on the question of whether war is disaster. WWI demanded resources. In particular, large quantities of wheat were necessary to feed allied troops overseas. Settlers of the Great Plains contributed to the war effort by satisfying this market. The film represents them patriotically by proclaiming: “wheat will win the war.” WWI briefly rescued farmers from destitution and established the Great Plains as the breadbasket of the world. However, it also resulted in over 16 million deaths. My classmates seemed to favor the humanist perspective, which categorizes war as disaster, but both histories contribute to our understanding of WWI.

Cronon concludes that “to try to escape the value judgments that accompany storytelling is to miss the point of history itself.” Historians should be exploring perspectives, not eliminating them. Diversity enriches the process through which stories both contextualize our past and guide our future.

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