Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Narrative History

I want to write narrative history, but I still struggle to shake off the graduate training that has conditioned me to write analytically.  In my forthcoming book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I dabble a bit with narrative, but often find myself coming back again and again to the kind of arguments that might appear in a traditional historical monograph. (My readers will have to decide whether my book works as a narrative history).

Don't get me wrong, I think that a book focused on analysis and argument can still be written in a way that is accessible for a general reader. This is what I tried to do in parts of The Bible Cause. But I do think that narrative is a more effective way of reaching lay readers.

With all of this in mind, I am looking forward to the conversation on narrative scheduled to appear this week at The Junto.  Here is a taste of Tom Cutterham's introductory post:

Should historians embrace the art of narrative, or treat it with more suspicion? In his review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton back in July, USIH’s Kurt Newman argued that “the book-length narrative” is not “the proper form for the presentation of a historical argument.” Narrative, he wrote, involves too much selection, too many authorial choices hidden from the reader. “Most importantly,” Newman suggested, “constructing a narrative is almost always tied up with some telos or end,” a teleology that serves as expression or conduit of ideology, pulling us towards the outcome we imagine fits. Narrative, in other words, is something more than reasoned argument. It enlists desire to shape the way we think.

For the rest of the week here at The Junto, we’ll be holding a round-table event on narrative in historiography, and we invite you to join in in the comments. What makes something a “book-length narrative,” or what distinguishes narrative history from any other kind? Are there alternatives to narrative that we should be adopting? How does narrative work—or fail—in journal articles and other non-book forms? We would love to hear about your favourite examples of narrative and non-narrative historiography. We’ll be sharing some of our own this week too.