Why do History Anyway?

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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.