Trajectory Matters

After reading William Cronon’s “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative” from 1992, I found it to be one of the best pieces of work we have read all semester regardless of topic or interest in subject. Even though it is 22 years old now, Cronon’s work is brilliant and a must read for all historians, whether studying environmental history or not.  Some of the insight and struggles Cronon alerts to in his narrative to answer the overarching question of “where did these stories come from,” are vital to historical scholarship work in general and certainly hit home with our projects and the stage we are in currently. When I first began to read it I thought it was going to be very dense and theoretical, however; once I really got into it, Cronon, in my opinion, came off as brilliant and well-crafted in his analysis.

Cronon essentially simplifies the argument to explain how our construction of narrative deeply matters. He describes how we take a group of events or facts and then construct them in different ways to make new meanings of the past, yet in doing so we choose our own narrative by deciding what events or facts we use and also the ones we leave out. Interestingly, it ends up creating a sort of narrative arc where the story has its ups and downs but usually ends up in two categories; either a progressive story or a declensionist one. In my brief two years as a history major, I haven’t necessarily thought of historical narrative this way but it makes sense and Cronon does a very good job and detailing how it happens. To expand on his thesis explaining these two end results, Cronon uses the comparison between Paul Bonnifield’s and Donald Worster’s works on the Dust Bowl. Both studied essentially the same works, used the same sources, had the same framework but concluded to completely different things:  natural vs. human disaster in the Dust Bowl; human triumph vs. human failure. That’s the cool thing about history; you can view the exact same thing as someone else but come up with a totally different analysis. In this case, Cronon advocates the progressive route or the declensionist one. The two authors ended up with completely different stories of the Great Plains where one described human triumph and courage while the other described human failure and the faults of capitalism. This simply point by Cronon was pieced together brightly and made for a thesis that really stuck.

Along with that, Cronon made another point that I thought was important; the narrative trajectory matters. He talks about the influence of the beginning, middle and end of a narrative and how the stop and start points completely shape the narrative and the meaning it creates. For example, if you stop a story in 1950 rather than 2000, the story takes on a different narrative and tells a different story. It was interesting how he clarified that with the trajectory of your story, you ultimately shape the narrative and the result of your work. Similarly, Sherwood mentions that the diversity of this narrative is what makes it history and what leads it into the future. Like Cronon, he explains that limiting the narrative instead of diversifying it hurts history and storytelling. Overall, a must read scholarship for historians.