Moral History: William Cronon, Narrative, and the Moral Imagination

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I appreciate Cronon’s piece and believe it’s a valuable conclusion to our semester’s readings. For all of our in-class debates about the merits of narrative history, I wish that we had had some exposure to Cronon beforehand to inform our discussion.  Our readings this semester—from McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood to Larson’s Isaac’s Storm—have certainly fostered my own appreciation for narrative histories. But Cronon offers an interesting element of narratives which I hadn’t considered before: the moral dimension of history. As he writes, “historical storytelling keeps us morally engaged with the world” (1375). And his conclusion is an interesting one because, in many ways, it echoes that of that of Edmund Burke, who first penned the term “moral imagination.” According to Burke, the “moral imagination” was the human’s perception which transcended personal, momentary experience and informed one’s ethical judgements. Art and poetry, according to Burke, shaped and directed it’s course. Cronon’s view of narrative is similar, merely exchanging art and poetry for historical storytelling. His argument is rather straightforward: human events and conflicts form our values; historical narratives bring order and precedent to those values, forming “our chief moral compass” (1375).

I happen to appreciate Cronon’s suggestion; my colleague Dan seems to think otherwise. As he sees it, any moral interpretation of history blurs the facts. If moralistic narratives become the predominant historical methodology, he writes, “history will become nothing but an over dramatized HBO version of the current academic field.” Instead, he claims, we ought to strive for  “more objective histories.” He poses the question: “is being emotionally moved necessary to the study of historical events?”

Well, certainly not. But to be clear, Cronon is addressing historical expression, not historical research. Dan is right to think that historians shouldn’t  need to bring boxes of Kleenex with them to the archives. But if Cronon is right in saying that “the questions [historians] ask are all about value,” then questions of moral value are reasonably pertinent—if not necessary (1376). Furthermore, it would seem that to write a good history, the historian ought to engage—at least implicitly—in the moral dimension of her work. Human actions, after all, carry a moral weight, and its up to observers to determine the merits of those actions.

Where I think some—like Dan—may find fault in a moral, historical narrative, however, is in its presumed shift in focus from concrete analysis to abstract description. But according Cronon’s stipulations, to “moralize history” does not water down it down; nor does it alter it. As Cronon writes, readers of history “cannot escape the valuing process defines [their] relationship to it” (1375). What’s important to note here is that, in Cronon’s view, readers do the “moralizing,” not the historians. Certainly a historian crafting a narrative can mold it with various biases—a fact which Dan seems to target exclusively with his “politicizing history” comment—but ultimately, according to Cronon, the historian’s work merely forms the “telos against which [readers] judge the . . . morality of human actions” [emphasis added] (1375). So, perhaps it’s important to bear in mind that, for Cronon, his ‘moral imagination’ informs the reader—not the historian—and the historical craft is left objective and intact.



Salvation through Primary Sources

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The social science students of Davidson often find themselves reading secondary sources to understand a critical evaluation of a fundamental document or theory. In fact, up until the assigned reading for February 11, the previous articles for Disasters of the American Gilded Age were not artifacts, but rather materials distorted to reflect the opinions of the author. Father Peter Pernin’s account in The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account varies from these other readings because it serves as a participant’s reaction to an event he survived.

Through his descriptive discourse, one is reminded of the tragically humane aspect of disasters. It is less emotionally unsettling, and therefore more difficult to understand the extent of the disaster, by reading about “five acres of stores, offices, factories, hotels, and homes had been destroyed, and many hundreds of people were dead” in a secondary source than to read about “charred carcasses of horses, cows, oxen, and other animals” and “the bodies of the human victims- men, women, and children- had been already collected and decently interred-their number being easily ascertained by counting the rows of freshly-made graves” as phrased by Father Peter Pernin (Rozario, 72; 263).

This data is not without bias or personal opinion, which emphasizes the advantages of reading more impartial reflections by secondary source authors. One undergoes a spiritualistic experience by reading Pernin’s article. Eli describes the literary eloquence of Pernin’s account in his post and how this style “elegantly describes what must have been a horrifying experience for everyone involved”. Aside from the repetitive calls to God, the flamboyant symbol of the hellish fire taking all those who did not bathe themselves in the river is manifested as Pernin writes, “At the same moment I heard a splash of the water along the river’s brink. All had followed my example. It was time; the air was no longer fit for inhalation, whilst the intensity of the heat was increasing. A few minutes more and no living thing could have resisted its fiery breath” (257). Pernin expands on the baptizing characteristics of the river as he continues a few pages later, “I came out of the river about half past three in the morning, and from that time I was in a very different condition, both morally and physically, to that in which I had previously been” (259).

Fortunately, the religious qualities of “The Great Peshtigo Fire” are blatant enough that one can choose interpret the work omitting or including them. The reader’s and secondary source’s decision to interpret the primary source at will reiterates the importance of returning to the original data. In this way, the source being reflected on is not limited to the analysis of a third party.

I think Cronon would have appreciated Pernin’s account because, despite it’s artistic approach, he does not distinguish the humans from their  environment. Pernin describes the animals’ foreshadowing of and reaction to disaster equal to the humans’. Additionally, he intertwines natural and anthropogenically-induced causes of the Peshitgo Fire, blaming the final  product of a dry season and ignorance.

The Difficulty in Defining What is “Natural”/”Unnatural”

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In reading Cronon’s Natures Metropolis, I was particularly taken by his contention that the boundary between what is natural and unnatural might not be as clear cut as is often thought. It seems that my classmates have taken particular interest in this same point, as everyone mentioned this notion to some degree or another in their blog posts. For me, having grown up primarily in large, urban cities, I have always seen rural life as separate and unfamiliar–perhaps even ignorantly, less “modern”. To then read Cronon’s take on cities forced me to think more deeply about how I view urban vs. rural spaces in relation to one another. Further, Cronon’s argument that, “City and country might be separate places, but [are] hardly isolated,” led me to consider whether cities and the country are truly independent spaces. As Cronon writes, “The more I learned the history of my home state, the more I realized that the human hand lay nearly as heavily on rural Wisconsin as on Chicago” (p. 7). Even further, cities and countrysides are quite interdependent. It is at this point where defining what is natural vs. unnatural becomes problematic.

I see the same issues in defining nature as in defining disaster. Wells brings up in his post Cronon’s idea of “First Nature” and “Second Nature.” I think these terms are helpful tools when discussing what is/is not nature. In my historiography paper, I discussed the vagueness of the word disaster and it’s potential to be problematic in the field of disaster study, but concluded (through examination of Bergman, Hewitt, and Biel) that it may not be that problematic after all. A changing/vague definition forces us to constantly reconsider the subject, perhaps leading to some new, previously overlooked, ideas on the subject.

Going now in a slightly different direction, I enjoyed Amani’s discussion of the morality of city and country. I think her question is a great one because there does seem to be a widely accepted notion that country represents the natural, which is better than cities which represent the unnatural. But if we consider Cronon’s argument that the two are interdependent, and that rural farms are not as natural as we might think, then this ascription of moral adjectives is no longer viable.

Natural Teleology: the Railroad and the “Natural” History of Chicago

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Our readings this week bridge a divide that I’ve seen in our previous readings: a disjunction between urban, economic, and environmental history. Rozario overlapped urban and economic history, Matthews environmental and social history, and Schneirov economic and social history. In Nature’s Metropolis, however, William Cronon does not merely suggest where these subjects might overlap, but fuses each together, suggesting that just as an isolation of the rural and the urban is an “illusion,” so too is any division of these historical subjects (18). In Chicago, Cronon asserts, we see the rise of a natural city and, consequently, a unique, interdisciplinary subject of historical inquiry.

As Eli humorously argued in his post last week, Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”—while it was certainly significant to the historiography of the American West—implausibly treated the frontier as an omnipotent actor in American history that not only offered the natural conditions suitable for westward expansion, but served as a driving force for American democratization. Much of Eli’s critique of Turner seems to be Turner’s heavily stereotyped characterization of the frontier.  But, as I think Eli’s quotations allude to, Turner personifies the frontier as one who “masters the colonist” (quoted in post). Its stereotypes aside, such a notion of the frontier seems contrived. While I can accept treating the frontier as  a natural actor in history, I have trouble with seeing a place as taking such an active role in events. If anything—as, I think, the articles by Kevin Rozario and James Connolly would suggest—places can reflect social and economic changes, rather than direct them. In this sense, I think we should should see nature—whether on the frontier or in the city—as a passive actor, being acted upon and responding  accordingly.

A Turnerian himself—though certainly a disillusioned one—Cronon adopts much of Turner’s treatment of nature and place as actors in Nature’s Metropolis. Chicago’s expansion, he asserts in his prologue, was foreshadowed by “nature’s own prophecies” and “expressed natural power” though the product of human ingenuity (13). But as Cronon goes on challenge what is, in fact, natural and unnatural about the city, I think we can begin to see the clearest depictions of nature and place as historical actors much like we might consider persons to be. As Sarah previously highlighted, the natural landscape surrounding Chicago directly influenced its development. From its central location to its proximity to Lake Michigan, the area in Upper Illinois that would one day be Chicago drew the eye and inspired the rhetoric of early “boosters.” But as Cronon highlights, Chicagoans’ struggle to overcome its natural disadvantages also shape much of their story. For example, to compensate for its muddiness, Chicagoans literally raised the city in its early history. What’s interesting in Cronon’s treatment of nature, however, is that, in addition to  environmental factors, he treats economic and technological impacts as natural—he calls them “Second Nature,” whereby humans adapt nature form new environments. Such “natural” actors include an ever-expanding, national railroad network and Chicago’s economic  alliance with the industrialized Northeast. These “First Nature” and “Second Nature” forces drastically influenced the emergence of Chicago as “Nature’s Metropolis.” What I found most interesting, however, were instances where these seemingly disparate natural forces converged. Cronon highlights one particularly interesting example of this phenomenon: the railroad. Economically, the railroad cut back on Chicago’s seasonal economic cycles and strengthened the city’s trading alliances with other regions. Environmentally, the railroad transformed and blended into the natural landscape. But the railroad was also influenced by other natural forces. In Chicago, proximity to Lake Michigan and the Erie Canal influenced travel rates, while its central location attracted both the eastern and western ends of the railroad web. In this sense, the railroad did not exist in “First Nature” or “Second Nature” exclusively, but in both. As Cronon writes, the railroad “partook of the supernatural, drawing upon a mysterious creative energy” (72). This, I argue, suggests that Cronon treats “nature” much as Turner treats the frontier—an omnipotent force as much as a historical actor.

So, in reading Cronon, how should we understand his Turnerian bias?

I’ll leave this for discussion in class. But—as I argue above—I think that Cronon simply recapitulates Turner, substituting “nature” for the frontier and endorsing a natural teleology for the Chicago’s preeminent rise as does Turner for American democratization.