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

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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.

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