The Inherent Dangers of Narrative

In his piece “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” William Cronon expertly interrogates narrative as a form of storytelling. Cronon suggests that narrative’s most impressive strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. As we saw while reading Johnstown Flood, certain narrative forms have the unique ability to convey history as a “story” (Cronon 1349). McCullough’s narrative sensationalized the history of a small town and an under appreciated disaster memorably, which ultimately enabled me to remember specific facts about the flood than I probably would not have had I learned about it from a traditional textbook.  Yet Cronon also warns about the inherent dangers of narrative, asserting that “in the act of separating story from non-story, we wield the most powerful yet dangerous tool of the narrative form” and that “[narrative] inevitably sanctions some voices while silencing others” (1349-1350).

Cronon points out that the differences between Bonnifield’s rendition of the Dust Bowl and Worster’s likely are the result of the inherent shortcomings in the narrative form. Each tells a story, yet they tell their stories from entirely different perspectives and thus arrive at varying outcomes. (Cronon 1348).

In an effort to illustrate the tendency of narrative to ignore sides of each story, Cronon rehashes Frederick Jackson Turner’s history of the West. Cronon suggests that Turner created a narrative that “[made] the Indians the foil for its story of progress…[making] their conquest seem natural, commonsensical, inevitable” (Cronon 1352). Turner’s narrative illustrates the ease with which certain pieces of history are ignored in favor of creating a coherent narrative.

On another note, Betsy points out in her post the strength’s of Cronon’s article when compared to Koppes’s. Koppes’s blatant preference for Worster’s work over Bonnifield undermined the authority of his review. Cronon, on the other hand, regards both writers as “competent” and respectively presents each of their arguements (1348). His objective approach to each author’s argument creates a pleasanter read that appears more informed and believable.

Nature in narratives and our role as storytellers

Cronon prompts an interesting discussion on the role of nature in narratives, one that I think Koppes lacked, and that is: although nature, in and of itself, is not always linear, why and how do we fit it in to a narrative structure? “Environmental history sets itself the task of including within its boundaries far more of the nonhuman world than most other histories, and yet human agents continue to be the main anchors of its narratives.” This problem of framing the role of nature is especially tricky when we think about nature in a nonlinear sort of way. Sometimes things in nature are cyclical and at times random, so how do we condense nature into a narrative structure?  Should we? And moreover, we tend to talk about nature in terms of its instrumental value at the sake of its intrinsic value, which creates an interesting problem when we try to determine its importance.

One of the things I think we need to be especially wary of is the tendency to reduce nature’s implications to binaries such as good vs. bad, helpful vs. harmful. Because if postmodernism has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be skeptical of our epistemological lenses. And yet, this fear shouldn’t stop historical inquiry. I think Molly wrote it best when she said, “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.”

I’m particularly concerned with ensuring that nature in an objective form is represented in history. But this is difficult when “Nature is unlike most other historical subjects in lacking a clear voice of its own” while simultaneously being anything but silent. We interpret nature’s meaning from our own human values and we can’t always stay true to the facts that are presented. This is why Bonnifield and Worster came to such different conclusions. But as Molly said, this may not always be bad if we can keep humans today morally engaged.

Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer

And this got me thinking about the current discourse surrounding the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. It is a shallow water table aquifer located under the Great Plains that depleting rapidly as a result of agricultural irrigation and drilling for oil and natural gas. The dilemma here, and like many other environmental issues, is how do we frame this event so that we as humans can understand the potential ecological damage? Of course here we are framing different problems, but Cronon’s article can be helpful in thinking about how we construct discourse today. Our human voices place value on nature, but activists who call for change should also implement strategies other than narrative; narrative only takes us so far. Resources such as maps, art, and hard science reports can animate nature’s important position as a stakeholder.

Too Much of a Good Thing

While I generally liked Cronon’s piece, I have to disagree with Molly’s appreciation for Cronon’s point that historical storytelling helps keep us morally engaged. While I think that there is a place for narrative history, I feel that too much much of it will just end up making more objective history more cloudy and harder to see.

I disagree with Cronon’s assertion that competing narrative will help lead to moral truths. With the example of the dust bowl, I feel that comparing Bonnefield and Worster’s arguments won’t lead to moral revelation, but rather a stale political debate. While there is a place for political debate, I don’t not think that it should be in the realm of history. I feel that more objective histories should be written, and if then scholars want to use those to support a political debate that is fine, but that politicizing history is wrong. On page 1374, Cronon writes that “my list of ‘significant Great Plains events’ surely had no effect on anyone’s emotions or moral vision, whereas I doubt anyone can read Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl without being moved in one way or another.” While I believe that his point is certainly true, is being emotionally moved necessary to the study of historical events? While no history can ever be truly objective, I think it is important for historians to try and be as objective as possible when writing histories, especially when the events studied already have some implicit emotional cache, like slavery or the War on Terror. I fear that though interesting, if moralistic narrative histories take over the field that history will become nothing but an over dramatized HBO version of the current academic field.

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.

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.

Competing Narratives

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.

Disaster Boosterism and Fear of the Poor

Carl Smith’s intense analysis of the narrative which formed around the Chicago fire in its aftermath is both fascinating and telling. I think it is, perhaps, an even more revealing analysis than any direct analysis of the fire might be, because the particulars of his investigation expose the thoughts, fears, and culture of Chicago’s narrative-makers.

Clearly, we saw in Cronon’s work that Chicago possessed ample boosters. Yet, boosterism in the face of disaster might still be unexpected; yet, it persisted. To Chicago’s boosters, and indeed many of its citizens, the fire marked Chicago as a great city: “Greater than the catastrophes that consumed Rome, London, and other world capitals, the fire proved that Chicago and America had already surpassed or would soon supersede these other cities in all respects”(130). The logic feels backward, but perhaps it is sound. Indeed, only a significant city could have a disaster on the scale of the Chicago fire of 1871. This is likely true of many disasters; as we have discussed, disasters are the confluence of nature and humanity, with the human element emerging as a decisive division between disasters and events. Today, our public figures are quicker to mourn the losses than to highlight the silver lining of a disaster. Leaders in the Gilded Age, however, seemed to remain relentlessly positive in the face of disaster.

On the other hand, the fire brought to light the fear of social instability. The rhetoric that emerged from disaster posited that the ‘respectable’ elements had banded together, unified and determined to survive. The poor were the most significant losers, altogether. From one perspective, they were the malefactors and miscreants who encouraged and spread the fire, looted, raped vulnerable women, and inconsiderately occupied crowded spaces with the wealthy. From another, they were helpless: “Others among the poor died because they evidently lacked the character and resolve to save themselves, which was also why they were poor in the first place”(150). In this case, Smith is merely explaining the narrative that existed, rather than asserting the above himself. These two narratives seem contradictory: these helpless poor, unable to save themselves, were amply able to terrorize the respectable citizens already traumatized by the approaching flames. Displacing the natural horror of the fire with fears of social unrest likely served to reinforce existing social order, implying that through a control of the ‘less respectable’ citizenry, the elite and middle class might be more able to exert control over such uncontrollable events as fire.

I take a more cynical view of preserved and “natural” spaces, such as National Parks, than does Emily. I think that the preservation of these natural spaces is as much a part of the capitalist culture as anything else. National parks and outdoor spaces have been commodified within the ethos of our consumer culture. People drive to these “natural” spaces, spend a day there, bring their own food or purchase it their. Trips down rivers are often guided. My own extensive time spent canoeing Wisconsin’s beautiful waterways has sent me past as many riverside houses, park ranger stations, and farms as anything else. We consume this preserved nature in small doses, which we can easily control. It certainly has an inherent appeal; however, that does not extricate it from capitalism. Capitalism does not judge the things we consume, but makes them available in the most appetizing portions for our consumption. Natural spaces in America have been packaged and labeled for our consumption, and we suspend our knowledge that they are just as “unnatural” as Manhattan as we consume them.

Nature as a Counterpoint to Cronon

In the introduction to Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon paints a picture of his childhood and the opposition of rural and urban that he claims to falsely have considered to be polar opposites, unconnected and fundamentally opposing.  I connected strongly with his childhood view, having also felt a persistent pull towards the undeveloped since my own childhood. For myself, as for Cronon, nature was pure and innocent, and the city was sophisticated, modern, and morally ambiguous. In arguing the inexorable relationship between rural and urban, he discounts this view, adopting instead a combination of Von Thunen’s Central Place Theory and Fredrick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis.  While his argument is convincing, it is fundamentally Marxist.  For Cronon, commerce and economics drive development.  I take issue with this simplified view of society, questioning the existence of nature preserves and National Parks, entities devoted to pleasure and exploration, in a world driven by commerce.  I see this government imitative as proof that there are other forces at work in development.  However, it is even more strongly present in the private sphere-the quest for a rural getaway that has existed for as long as there have been densely populated areas in America, as exemplified in the construction of the Biltmore House by the Vanderbilt’s in the late 1800’s.  The forested mountains that we see from overlooks such as Caesar’s Head (a childhood favorite) result from more than government preservation.  As a whole, we seem to recognize the innate value in the natural, and it is evidenced in the forests that still clothe our mountains.  However, that value is far from commercial, and if economics drove all development, the mountains would have been developed long ago.  Therefore, I argue that the continued existence of large quantities of forestland in the American Southeast act as a counterpoint to Cronon’s assertion that economics are the fundamental driver of development.

I would like to add to Catherine’s point about the Davidson College Ecological Preserve. It is indeed second growth forest, and she questions how natural it is because of this.  However, if you take a look around at this new growth forest, you see so many other physical signs of human tampering.  You see the wide swath cleared last year for the gas lines, still bare from the destruction.  You see the abandoned house, a favorite of students for midnight jaunts.  You see the goats, an introduction into the Davidson woods, but their presence indicates an effort to correct another invasive species gone wild, Kudzu.  The list goes on, from the boathouse to the power line.  In this wild place, the wildest that Davidson has to offer, we are never far from man’s influence.  This raises the question, also raised by Cronon in his introduction, what is wilderness?  Does it exist in this modern age?  I don’t know the answer, but as a nature lover, I am glad that the question can still be asked today.

Confusing the boundary between city and country

In Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon makes the argument that the stories of Chicago and the Great West are lacking unless told together.  And while the regions look, sound and smell different – they both represent America’s marketplace evolution and the process of abstracting commercial value from physical landscapes.

To begin, it seems to be really incredible – truly a symbol of mankind’s determination – that Chicago was able to rise out of the swampy lowlands. It had none of the natural advantages found in great cities else where around the world . . no fertile valley’s, no great harbours, no broad rivers. Instead, its creation depended solely on the force of human will”(15). Cronon, although he seems wary of using the term ‘progress’, demonstrates how humans, when faced with opportunity, will prove extremely innovative. In doing so, nature becomes, as Emerson writes the mere “double of man” (15). So while the environment does play a role, ultimately it appears, culture begets culture.

But how do humans decide in what ways to manipulate nature – to convert it from a pristine wilderness to a cultivated garden? “The ways people value the products of the soil, and decide how much it costs to get those products to market, together shape the landscape we inhabit” (50). I think Eli said it best in his post, “Yet, part of the ethos of America, especially of the past, which I am beginning to understand is the desire for commercial hegemony.” And in this sense, understanding Chicago from theories of economic geography is extremely valuable. For after all, Chicago out of all of the cities in the Midwest most effectively reshaped its land to become the ultimate gateway city to the west. (Catherine did a great job in her post discussing the importance of transportation. Both manmade, and to a lesser extent, natural.)

Nature’s Metropolis provides a strong argument in explaining not only the rise of Chicago, but also in the altering of America’s landscapes for the cultivating and trading of commodities. Whether urban or rural, these regions fundamentally reshaped the other – confusing our traditional notions between natural and artificial. “Gauged by how we feel about them, the distance we travel between city and country is measured more in the mind than on the ground” (8). Chicago proves to be an extremely effective case study – erasing the boundaries between country and city.

Cronon’s Chicago

There are two approaches to understanding nature, and neither debates the inclusion of humans or cities in the definition of nature. There is the all-welcoming approach: nature is everything, and there is the nihilist approach: nature is nothing. Personally, I don’t believe the second approach because if nature is nothing, then nothing would be everything. An example of the interconnectedness between all elements on this earth, or nature, is sunsets which environmentalist William Cronon presents on page 73 of Nature’s Metropolis. “’Fancy the rail gone, and we have neither telegraph, nor schoolhouse, nor anything of all this but the sunset.’” But is a sunset any more or less natural depending on the “telegraph” or “schoolhouse”? I argue no. The sun slips over the earth’s edge leaving us, in our place on earth, behind. This phenomenon occurs everyday regardless of what tree grows or what electricity pumps through the wires. Does this sunset vary for the people of Los Angeles? The anthropogenic pollution may augment the light refraction, and make the sunset more beautiful, but it is impossible to separate these factors and produce the same result.

It is based off this concept that William Jackson Turner, in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, and later, William Cronon, categorize cities as part of nature. Chicago was able to develop because of ecological advantages that allowed humans to survive (glaciers in carved out lakes and deposited fertile fine-grained soil which supported grains and grasses which then attracted herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores). As Eli points out in “Chicago: the power of space”, the natural benefits boosters publicized did not seem to be so beneficial after all, as the city had to spend thousands of dollars dredging sand from the “natural harbor”. In this manner, nature can be both an attraction and a deterrent. Chicago is unique because it was about to thrive (not just develop) because of the transcontinental railroad. Contrary to Marston’s post, I believe Cronon attributes the rise of Chicago greatly to the transcontinental railroad (see Nature’s Metropolis: “Rails and Water”), while still acknowledging the environmental foundations that even allowed people to settle in this region. Without the railroad, the city would have had to continue to fight for its purpose, however there is a reason the railroad was established in Chicago and not in Minneapolis or Green Bay.

As a concluding point, when I think of the most “natural” place on Davidson College campus, I think of the Davidson College Ecological Preserve: 200 acres of “untouched” land. I think most students would agree. However, would most students be surprised to learn that these 200 acres are actually a second-growth forest, meaning that it is not the original land that was there 500 years before European explorers reached the new world? This ecological preserve also served as farmland, and potentially a golf course, before the school acquired it and allowed the native forest to re-emerge.