History-the art of storytelling

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Surprisingly unexpected, this narrative by Cronin does not fit his own definition of a narrative. I don’t care about the Dust Bowl now more than prior to reading his essay. Cronin did, however, provide a compelling account of the scholarship attributed to the Dust Bowl. Within this account, Cronin formulates and sheds light on arguments made regarding this period as well as history as a whole. He uses these varying accounts about the same traumatic event ask an age-old historical question, “how [do] two competent authors looking at identical materials drawn from the same past reach such divergent conclusions?” He further emphasizes that their conclusions are different because the stories they tell are different. I disagree with Cronin’s assertion that this is difficult to comprehend. Everyone obtains different biases from their varying experiences. As Cronin later explains, historians pick and choose the information they use to prove their point. In Cronin’s words, narratives “inevitably sanctions some voices while silencing others.” He eventually comes to these conclusions, but it takes him too long to arrive there in my humble opinion.

Cronin does convince me that the Dust Bowl can be categorized as a Gilded Age Disaster. Previously I thought the Gilded Age ended when the progressive era began prior to World War 1. The Dust Bowl showed that humans need to recognize and accept the limits of nature rather than strive to overcome them. The failure of this struggle epitomizes the Gilded Age. Consistently humans try to “cheat the system” by over-producing, over-working, and over-consuming all while negating common sense for safety and proper production methods.

I enjoyed Cronin’s tie in with the political culture of the period. The propaganda film that we watched by Pare Lorentz emphasized the “naturalness” of the Dust Bowl and the benefit of the government. Characterizing the environmental conditions as “inevitable” truly takes blame away from the farmers and the government. Lorentz’s film, in Cronin’s words, conveys how government interfusion of “technology, education, cooperation, and state power would…avert tragedy.” Cronin pits Lorentz’s work against the more recent scholarship of Paul Bonnifield that views the government intervention as detrimental to the recovery process. Bonnifield claims that it was “the people who lived there not government scientists, who invented new land-use practices that solved earlier problems.” I think there’s a happy medium between these two conclusions. The government scientists had many more resources at their disposal and were able to work in a less eminent environment while the farmers obtained the hands on experience.

I’m going to agree with Wells here, sorry Dan. I think the emotionless, strictly factual based history does very little to advance our society. Often we write history and remember history to effect (or affect? I’ll never know) our future. Without the emotional pull, history is dry and almost meaningless. It’s the individual stories and the sympathetic nature humans crave that brings history alive and establishes its meaning. There’s a huge difference in reading how the Nazis in WWII used killing squads to eradicate Jews from Poland killing thousands of men, women, and children; and reading a specific story of one of these families where one member survived (boy, that escalated quickly). I think we read facts or figures and say, “wow, that’s a lot of people. That’s terrible.” But when we can associate the facts with much more intricate detail that we can sympathize with (a family’s struggles, for example), then history becomes much more meaningful.

And I leave you all with this:

Nature in narratives and our role as storytellers

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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.

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.

Trajectory Matters

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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

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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.

The ‘Invisible Hand’ Takes Up the Plow: Environmental and Economic Interpretations of the Dust Bowl

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As my colleagues Price and Molly have shrewdly noted, there seems to be a fundamental tension in interpretations of the Dust Bowl, one that pits market forces against natural causes. But what’s particularly interesting about this tension, as Price suggests, is its ambiguity. To call the Dust Bowl an environmental disaster is an understatement; to call it an economic tragedy is shortsighted. Instead, I think, we ought to read this particular disaster as a complicated intersection of the two, to understand how people driven by market forces used the land and how, as Molly writes, “the land . . . got its revenge.”

In The Plow that Broke the Plains, Pare Lorentz navigates this tension rather well. Though he states initially that his is “a record of lands . . . of soil, rather than people,” he carefully includes explanations of the political and economic forces that motivated the behavior of plains people. Indeed, as Lorentz explicitly highlights, the rising price of wheat and the crisis of war spurred old ranchers in the “cattleman’s paradise” to take up the plow. Contrary Molly’s suggestion, however, I think that Lorentz remains to true to his “record of the lands” even in this coverage of human behavior. As he explains the underlying forces of farm expansion, Lorentz repeatedly invokes the environmental costs and dangers of the wheat boom, interspersing the phrase “high winds and sun” throughout his dialogue. Moreover, with the advent of the Dust Bowl, Lorentz returns to panoramic shots of the landscape—only covered in dust and death, rather than grassy hills. Lorentz, it seems, characterizes the land as a victim at the hands of humans.

That said, I do think that Molly is right in stressing Lorentz’s attention to humans in the film. Though—as I argued above—Lorentz’s primary focus is the victimization of the land, I think there is something to be said for Lorentz’s treatment of plains people. Particularly at the end of the film, he highlights their suffering, characterizing them as he does the land, as victims. He describes them as “blown-out, baked-out, and broke” and later as “homeless, penniless, and bewildered.” Those affected by the Dust Bowl were certainly victimized. The only question is: by whom? Lorentz, I think, leaves a clear, resounding answer to this question at the very end of film: “the sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”

So, in sum, I think that Lorentz balanced the tension between the environmental and economic causes of the Dust Bowl by stressing two, intertwined instances of victimization: the land at the hands of plains people and plains people at the hand of the land.


A Fragile Environment

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The video “The Plow that Broke the Plains” places a clear emphasis on the human role in the Great Plains disaster. Nate rightly suggests that there are both natural and manmade elements to this disaster. The narrator repeats phrases such as “high winds and sun” throughout the film, clearly suggesting that the editors and directors of the film believed that the fragility of the Great Plains made the Dust Bowl disaster predictable.  In this way, the makers of the film implied that man essentially set himself up for disaster by settling on a dry land with “little rain” and “high winds and sun.” When put that way, it doesn’t seem that surprising that the plains dried out.

This argument relates back to one our previous class discussions about settling in places that are prone to natural disaster, such as San Francisco. When people choose to settle in fragile or unstable locations, and then in this case change their environment, are they setting themselves up for disaster?

The makers of this film seem to believe that that is the case. They trace the narrative of capitalism in relation to the Great Plains. Demand for wheat increased significantly with World War I, taking a great toll on the Great Plains. Newspaper titles flashed across the screen reiterate the human role in the Dust Bowl Disaster, as the war was clearly a result of mankind.

Film provided a new method of propaganda that had the unique ability to utilize visual imagery as well as sound to convey meaning. The newspaper titles, narration, as well as music all serve to echo the argument of this film.

A Treeless Windswept Continent of Grass and No Rivers

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After the opening credits of Lorentz The Plow That Broke the Plains, the first words of narration describe a land of desolation with no natural water sources.  An area fit for only the lone cattle rancher,  at least until the “The Train brought Plowmen”.  In Koppes review of  the Worster text Dust Bowl, he highlights how Worster describes the wrestling of land away from the cattle ranchers as farmers began to populate the Great Plains.  Both the Koppes review and the Lorentz documentary do a good job highlighting the transformation of the Great Plains from a windy grasslands to a desolate dust bowl.

Briefly before World War I, Lorentz described farming in the Great Plains as “Plowing at one’s own peril”, but his tone quickly heightens with enthusiasm as wheat and grain prices began to soar.   “Wheat Will Win The War,” filled the headlines of American Newspapers and the incorporation of Tractors and other gas powered machinery only increased the rate of wheat production.  As Molly described in her post, “The plowmen waged war on the lands, as enemies waged war on the allies,” it makes sense that the wheat boom took off in the fashion that it did.  Lorentz does a good job in foreshadowing the farming conditions subject to the loose and dry soil of the plains.  Periodically throughout the documentary Lorentz can be heard repeating, “High Winds and Sun, High Winds and Sun,” describing the unchanging conditions of the plains because no matter how little farming the land is subject too, there will always be high wind and blistering sun.

Koppes review of the Worster text highlights many of the highs and lows of Great Plains living in the early 20th Century.  “The bison and Indians sometimes broke the grass cover, but it was quickly revegetated,” grass is the glue that holds the earth together in the dry and arid conditions of the Great Plains.  As for the surge of farmers, Koppes highlights the Worster term “Sodbusters” because they did just that, breaking up the sod and unrooting acres upon acres of grass.  Vegetation in the Great Plains can be subjected to subsistent farming, but can’t in an uncontrolled and unregulated farming culture driven by New Deal agricultural reform.  As described by Koppes, Dust Bowl, is a passionate book written by a native of the Great Plains.  Koppes does a good job providing us with an overview of the Worster text that helps us understand why wheat production became a major surplus in the American economy and how the Great Plains became 400,000,000 acres of dusty vacant land.

Overall the Lorentz documentary provides vivid video footage from the height of the Wheat Farming boom to the dust storms stirred up by the high winds common to the Great Plains.  The Koppes text provides a good review for the Worster text, which can be used to understand why and how farmers overused the Great Plains.  The Great Plains farming and tales of the Dust Bowl tie up the gilded age and are a prime example of why regulation/monitoring of particular ventures, in this case plain’s farming, are byproducts of Gilded Age disasters.

The Dust Bowl: Interpreting it as Disaster

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The dust bowl is a very interesting historical event to study, with many factors that led to it happening, both natural and manmade. I think Koppes does an adequate job of comparing Worster and Bonnifield, yet he does an incomplete analysis of each source individually. He argues the Worster is more coherent, while Bonnifield’s argument needs polishing.

Like Marston, I was frustrated by not knowing about the two sources Koppes is reviewing. I think that I would have been less frustrated if he approached the two sources differently, as I do not expect everyone who reads his article to have read the two sources that he reviews. He says that Bonnefield’s argument is too incoherent without going in depth as to explain why it is incoherent. With Worster, he presents the book as having a more polished argument. He then concludes his analysis of the book by stating one of its main arguments, an implication of an alternative to capitalism. He then goes on talking about his qualms with the book, yet he does not explain how the book could have argued his points better. Instead, he points out one argument of the book that he liked. He leaves the reader putting an immense amount of trust in his assessment of both sources without really explaining too much why he feels the way that he feels about both of the sources. I feel as though he was too ambitious with the word count that he used, and he should have either narrowed what he was arguing or written more.

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

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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.