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

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.

The Plow the Broke the Plains: The Dust Bowl as an End to Agrarian Romanticism in the U.S.

Pare Lorentz’s 1936 documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains, claims to be “the story of lands, not of people.”  The first scene of the documentary displays a map of the Great Plains Area and the nine states that comprise it.  Next, Lorentz features numerous sprawling shots of the Plains, and the cattle that graze there.  After the exposition however, Lorenz focuses more on human activities on the Plains.  His true focus demonstrates that Lorentz, whose stated purpose was to tell the story of the lands, would have done better to amend the wording of his focus to “the story of how people overused the lands.”

Lorentz indicates a bias about early human activity by Romanticizing the lone cattle rancher.  He films the rancher seated on a white horse from below, indicating a motivation to make the rancher seem larger and more dominant than he might otherwise appear.  One of the shots of the rancher looking after his cattle actually looked very similar to the Romantic painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich.  Lorenz makes it clear that he has no qualms with ranchers using the Plains.

Lorentz later accompanies footage of a fence with the statement, “the first fence—progress came to the plains.”  He describes man’s increased activities on the Plains as progress, but quickly follows this statement with the phrase, “The rains failed them,” when referring to early plowmen.  With progress, Lorenz points out, came more problems.

At around 13 minutes, Lorentz juxtaposes scenes of tractors coming from the right with enemy tanks coming in from the left, suggesting through powerful imagery that the people of the time believed that, “Wheat will win the war.”  Plowmen waged war on the lands, just as enemies waged war on the allies.

The land, Lorentz suggests, got its revenge.  After the war and the golden harvest, “the sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”  As Koppes points out in his evaluation, early accounts of the Dust Bowl ignore factors like economics and policy.  Lorentz gives nature a great deal of agency here, and by ending with this line, suggests that ecological factors caused the Dust Bowl.

I agree with Price and Jean that Koppes used his book review “as a platform to voice his own argument.”  Because he presents his bias early on and fails to support his claims with enough evidence, I cannot agree with his final evaluation of the texts without conducting further research.  However, I enjoyed reading the review as helpful in filling in a number of gaps that The Plow the Broke the Plains left in its narrative.

A Different Kind of Disaster: (Mis)Treatment of Mary Mallon?

I chose to read “Extraordinary and Even Arbitrary Powers: Public Health Policy” because I hoped it would parallel my own research on health policies in schools during the Spanish Flu.  Although I did not find any direct parallels to my project, this chapter in Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health did give me a few new sources I would like to check out.  I would like to research Charles Chapin and Milton Rosenau who wrote on public health issues.  Even if their works focus on typhoid, it would be helpful to understand the public health climate of the time regarding other diseases to see if and how Spanish Flu was treated any differently, particularly in schools.

In this chapter, Leavitt primarily focuses on how public health policy makers justified permanently isolating Mary Mallon and no others.  Leavitt points to the facts that Mallon was the first carrier identified, she reacted violently to authorities, she resumed cooking under a fake name after her first stint at isolation, she was foreign, and she was not a “breadwinner” as possible explanations.  However, Leavitt explains there were other foreigners, other single women, other cooks, and other resisters to the Health Department who were not sent to an island to live in isolation.  Leavitt argues, therefore, that it was public health policy makers’ desire to make an example of Mallon that landed the cook on North Brother Island.

As John points out, policy makers like Biggs, Soper, and Baker were determined to prove that “Public Health was purchasable.”  The real disaster,  was not the outbreak of typhoid, but Mary’s treatment and the public’s reaction to it.  The deaths caused by typhoid were enough to make Americans in large cities anxious; the public health office’s response had the potential to fuel the national debate about the limits of the government’s authority.  Although many supported the government’s decision to isolate carriers because they did not wish to be infected themselves, many others may have become disillusioned with U.S. policy makers because, according to protesters, they used the disaster to increase their powers.

Research Update: The Influence of the Spanish Flu on American Education

Before our library session on Tuesday I had only been able to find newspaper articles mentioning school closings and a few deaths.  These were useful in helping me make the argument that the Spanish Flu had a short-term effect on schools and American education, but they got very repetitive and did not help me make a point about long term effects of the flu.  During and after the library session, I found many more newspaper articles and annual reports suggesting more diverse effects of the flu on schools.  For example, there may have been debate about teachers’ salaries during forced furloughs.  Some teachers were asked to serve as nurses during their time off.  Students were encouraged to spend their time outside, and in the South this often translated to working outdoors instead of keeping up with studies.  I think that I will be able to find evidence that there were at least a few long-term effects of the flu in various school systems across the country because some of my secondary sources on the flu briefly mention them.  I will try to contact my secondary sources’ contacts and also historians/archivists at Davidson, my high school, and various public school systems.

Distinction between Cultural and Individual Significance

I disagree with the notion that the sinking of the Titanic has no intrinsic meaning, as  Dan suggests that Wells has argued, and I’m worried that as our society is exposed to more disasters, we become increasingly numb to the significance of individual human lives and stories.  Although I agree with Wells’ point that Biel believes and argues that the sinking of the Titanic was only culturally meaningful “in that it reflected the social and ideological complexities of a particular historical moment,” I think that from the individual triumphs depicted we can divine some small, personal hints of significance inherent in the disaster itself.

As Biel points out, activists for all issues skewed perceptions of the accounts to suit their agendas.  This manipulation of facts for the purposes of activists is the subject of Biel’s chapter entitled, “The Rule of the Sea and Land.”  My favorite example of this lies in Biel’s depiction of female activists claiming heroism “at the expense of men whose class and ethnic origins were suspect” (55).  The women claimed they had to demonstrate physical strength to row their own lifeboats.  Here Biel invokes thoughts of Social Darwinism by insinuating that women felt they had to put down other marginalized groups in order to gain any credence in mainstream society.  This Social Darwinism may or may not have been noticed by those present on the boat, but Biel certainly makes the case that activists and journalists imposed it on those who were present.

By discussing and condemning the manipulation of heroic deeds before actually discussing the deeds themselves, I think Biel minimizes these deeds’ significance.  Although racist and elitist, Andrews seemed proud that she had played a part in her own survival.  For her, the sinking of the Titanic was significant.  Yet Biel focuses less on Andrews’ perception of the disaster, and more on the public’s perception of it.  As his title, Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster, suggests, Biel focuses more on reactions to, rather than personal victories within the disaster.  This is where the conflation between cultural and individual significance comes in.  It is easy to forget an event’s significance to individuals who participated, especially when compared with it historical and cultural significance.  It may even seem too easy an argument to make—of course this event was meaningful for those who experienced it.  But I don’t think that suggests that the event had no intrinsic meaning whatsoever.  The meaning was more personal than it was cultural, and it makes sense that Biel did not find that meaning, since his intent was to provide an account of only the cultural history of the sinking of the Titanic.


Distinctions between Blame and Responsibility in Fradkin’s The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906

From his title alone—The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself—we can identify one of Fradkin’s main arguments: much of the damage wrought during the earthquake and firestorms was self-inflicted by those in charge in San Francisco.  Fradkin identifies a number of different ways the leadership in San Francisco failed those it served. 300 distribution mains and 23,200 connecting pipes that spread water throughout the town were fractured, so firemen could not extinguish the fires with water (72).  Firemen, instead of miners who had experience with explosives, tried (and failed) to fight fire with fire (76).  Acting Commander Funston marched troops into the town with no orders to do so, leading civilians to believe they were under Marshall law and to an unclear chain of command (63).  Mayor Schmitz ordered that all looters be shot on sight since there was no place for a prison (67).

Fradkin clearly conveys to his readers that these would have been avoidable occurrences had there been better preparation for earthquakes and fires, fewer class/language barriers, and more communication between government and people. However, the tone of this article is much more understanding and forgiving than narratives we have recently read about the Galveston Hurricane, which as Jeremiah points out implied a degree of hubris that I now associate with most Gilded Age disasters.  While Fradkin notes that other towns looked down on San Francisco as being a “sinful city,” he does so in a remarkably objective manner, citing a poem advertising a whisky store which made light of the city’s poor reputation (171).  He also tempers the argument that damage was self-inflicted with a counterargument that several aspects of the 1906 San Francisco fire were competently dealt with.  Navy Lieutenant Frederick N. Freeman, Fradkin argues, saved the waterfront of San Francisco, providing a safe supply line for relief to enter the city (172).

I think Fradkin uses this disaster to separate blame from institutional and cultural disparities.  For example, he does not blame any group or individual for the tragic inequality of experience felt by members of the clubs and inhabitants of Chinatown.  Instead, Fradkin points to the commonalities between the two cultures in claiming that both sought places to worship.  Although Fradkin points to racism, he often does so in the passive voice: “Few Asians were counted as victims.  It was as if they did not exist” (110-111).  Although I’m not sure whether or not I agree that we should separate blame from institutional and cultural disparities, I think this text is distinct from others we have read thus far.

The Role of the Press in the Aftermath of the Johnstown Flood

Was the press’ obsessive coverage of the flood harmful or helpful to the recovery of Johnstown?  McCullough seems to present two radically different arguments in his telling of the Johnstown Flood.  On the one hand, McCullough describes members of the press as opportunistic vultures just looking for their next scoop, but on the other, he repeatedly points out that their coverage helped Johnstown obtain upwards of three million dollars in relief funds.

In chapter VII McCullough describes an interesting interaction between Arthur J. Moxham, Johnstown’s temporary “dictator,” and the National Guard.  Earlier in the chapter McCullough wonders at Moxham’s clear-headedness, labeling his decision to begin clearing the mess as “extraordinary” (190).  Yet McCullough sends the National Guard packing when they show up because he believed it best that “the people handle their problems themselves.”  I thought Moxham made an interesting point, but wondered how he could possibly turn down free help when it was offered.  After reading on, I realized the help was not exactly free.  Johnstown would have to find shelter and food for any visitors who tried to help or write about the flood—shelter and food that the population of Johnstown desperately needed.

The accounts of the many different reporters who came to Johnstown demonstrate that members of the press did not take this into consideration when coming to town.  One reporter for the Philadelphia Press, Richard Harding Davis, expected to find a restaurant, a horse and buggy, and a pressed shirt (216).  Instead, he had to compete for resources with the rest of Johnstown and the many relief workers, reporters, family members, and opportunists in town.  Many reporters stretched the truth beyond recognition, and in some cases the lies spread by the reporters led to trouble for members of the Johnstown community.  With headlines as brass as “Fiends in Human Form” and “Drunken Hungarians, Dancing, Singing, Cursing, and Fighting amid the Ruins,” newspapers like the New York Herald endangered the lives of the Hungarians in town since they fed on prejudices and created panic (211).

However, McCullough balances this irreverent description of the press by citing the millions of dollars of relief their publicity had inspired.  Not only did the press’ publicity garner the town money, but also supplies like lumber, furniture, quicklime, etc. (225).  McCullough notes that leaders of Johnstown declared that any able bodied man who stayed in Johnstown needed to help with relief efforts, and many members of the press adhered to this rule to stay in town.

With all of this information, I wonder what opinion of the press I am supposed to have.  As Amani points out, McCullough inserts his own opinions about humanity into his narrative.  With that in mind, I was left with the idea that McCullough believed the press to be a short-term hindrance to the reconstruction of Johnstown, but an overall blessing for the survivors.

Sacrifices in The Johnstown Flood

In chapters I-III of his work, McCullough describes the many different factors that led to the Johnstown Flood, setting up his depiction of the chaos of the events of the flood itself in chapters IV-VI.  Because he takes so much care to set the scene for this disaster early on, McCullough is free to jump around from individual account to individual account when describing the events of the flood.  These vignettes are more compelling to me than a single, dry description of the flood’s path of destruction.  I found myself rooting for figures like Plummer and his brother, who sacrificed their jobs in defying and gouging Hess and sounding the train’s whistle (115), and mentally scolding Samuel S. Miller for abandoning his post and the passengers on his train, an act McCullough describes as “a good deal less coolheaded and quite a lot more human” (125).

While I don’t know that I would go as far as to say that McCullough’s “historical authenticity is questionable,” as Price argues, I definitely agree that McCullough’s style has a few major drawbacks.  I was particularly frustrated with a few of the photos and drawings McCullough chose to include at the end of Chapter IV.  McCullough does not provide a satisfying amount of context alongside each image the way a formal essay might.  For example, McCullough includes an image of a dead body in trapped in the wreckage of the flood and claims it was fake (137).  Here he implies that the photographers staged a photo, but he does not explain why a photographer might have done this—a question that I think would reveal a great deal about the public’s conception of the flood.  McCullough sacrifices in-depth analysis for a flowing and captivating narrative.  While I wish to defend McCullough’s historical authenticity, I do question his writing style since it leaves out information I think might be helpful to his readers (although admittedly, McCullough does not purport to explain sensationalist reactions to the flood in these chapters, and he does provide some analysis elsewhere).

The Effects of the Spanish Influenza on American Education from 1918-1920

Every year on Memorial Day students at my high school, Culver Academy, gather in the chapel to commemorate the students who lost their lives in American wars.  The list of names for World War I is always longest.  In 2009, my school was on lockdown because of the H1N1 virus that was apparently sweeping the nation.  Students did not have to go to classes if they did not feel comfortable doing so, and many students stayed shut in their own rooms for two weeks.  The Spanish Flu came up in passing in my biology class at the time, and I decided to do a little more research on the subject.

I found out that more people died of the Spanish Flu than as a result of WWI. This discovery left me with the question, were Culver students affected by the flu as well?  If so, why don’t we commemorate their lives?  What happened to Culver students in the midst of a pandemic?  I would like to know if and how the Spanish Influenza affected students, teachers, and administrators.  Did the flu affect some region more seriously than others?  Did it affect some types of schools more than others?  Did it affect universities more than grade schools?  Did it affect Davidson College?  Did this outbreak lead to any policy changes with regards to health in schools?  I think that journal entries could give me a look into attitudes towards the flu.  Contemporary newspapers could do the same and also provide information about which school records I should look into. Attendance records, payrolls, and school infirmary records would let me know how the influenza spread across campus.  Contemporary legislature could suggest if anyone attempted to make policy changes.  Medical journals, histories of education, books and articles about the Spanish Flu, and personal interviews might help me frame my research.

I have already started looking into some sources, and right now I am worried that I will not be able to find enough scholarly works to support an argument about education and the influenza.  Most sources that I find discuss the age groups and social classes of the people who were infected, but not how the influenza affected school systems, or even more broadly, how it affected any kind of existing government structure.  I wonder if this is a result of preoccupation with the War, or if I am simply looking in all the wrong places.  Before I go any further with this topic, I’d like to make sure I can find enough primary sources to make a claim about how the flu affected schools between 1918-1920.

Emotional Cognizance: Finding a Balance between Empathy and Distance when Discussing Disasters

As I am from metropolitan Atlanta, I was drawn to Katherine Taylor’s three part series, Atlanta Flooding.  I was struck by the fact that I did not remember the flood at all.  The VAC’s description notes that the heavy rains that caused the flood in Atlanta in 2009 also affected Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas, but I suppose because I was not aversely impacted, I didn’t make the effort to commit the event to memory.

The first thing I felt when looking at these painting was guilt.  I felt guilty that I couldn’t remember an event that apparently caused culvert failure, school closings, and homes to be destroyed less than thirty minutes away from my home.  Floods are topics of historic, biblical, and often cultural import, but with modern technology, they are now localized.  Unless a flood garners a wide media following, it will rarely cause an outside party to think twice on it.  I decided to do research on other floods in my area once I got back to my room, and did not feel guilty that I could not remember other natural disasters.  I think the difference between my two reactions was that one event was depicted visually and the others in writing.  Visual appeals to emotions can often be more effective at swaying an individual’s opinion than written appeals to reason (this is a crass oversimplification of a complex psychological issue, and there are many exceptions to this notion, but for the sake of space I’ll leave it here).

Why is this significant, and how can students of history benefit from an understanding of this idea?  In order to be an informed global citizen, students should recognize the types of appeals texts make.  Political cartoons, photographs, and films often inspire more intense reactions than academic dissertations, pamphlets, and news articles.  They can lead to riots and play instrumental parts in revolutions.  To know that emotion plays a key part in historical events is to be one step closer to understanding those events.  In this sense, introspection and empathy are useful.  However, too much empathy can lead to bias.  For example, when a student is selecting sources to use in a paper, he should keep his own reaction to a text in mind.  As Eli pointed out, historians often need to distance themselves emotionally from their topics in order to present a fair and accurate depiction.  That’s not to say art should not be used as a source, but that it should be used with the understanding that it can sway a writer or reader without their knowledge.

Were I to write a paper on recent southern floods, I would have to consider the guilt I felt when looking on Atlanta Flooding when deciding whether or not to use it as a source.  According to the VAC description, the artist combines colors, painting and drawing techniques, and stains on the paper to illustrate her point that floods are “contradictory” and “distorted.”  I could use that analysis to my advantage were I to write a paper on the confusing and distorting effects of floods on southerners, or I could combine this series with other texts in order to make the point that while some southerners think floods are contradictory and distorting, they aren’t as disruptive as they appear.  The quality would depend on my own conscientiousness as a writer and on my ability to incorporate other texts effectively.  Toeing the line between empathy and emotional distance in a class on disasters will be a challenge this semester, but with this assignment as an introduction, I think it will prove to be a very manageable one.