Beginning in 1979, not coincidentally the year the first Pulitzer was awarded for feature writing, British historian Lawrence Stone heralded the revival of narrative in academic history writing. The story was back. Stone defined narrative as the organization of material in a chronologically sequential order and focusing the content into a single, coherent story. Now this represented a departure from common historical writing and should give you a sense of just how inhospitable to plot that genre had become.
Unlike structural or scientific history, which is analytical, narrative history, for Stone, is descriptive. From most historians’ point of view, to call a piece of writing “descriptive” is the worst kind of damnation. But far from lamenting descriptive narratives, Stone celebrated them. Narrative history, he suggested, is by no means lacking in interpretation, so long as it’s directed by what Stone called a “pregnant principle.”
Stories with pregnant principles are hard to write and especially difficult to write artfully. Many narrative histories written by academics take readers on sea-sickening sails that endlessly tack back and forth between story and argument. How to tell a story that does more than describe what happened is not immediately obvious, at least to most academic historians.
In a perceptive essay written in 1992, Cambridge historian Peter Burke suggested that historians ought to borrow the anthropological notion of thick description—a technique that interprets an alien culture through the precise and concrete description of particular practices and events—and write thick narratives that seamlessly integrate story and context. The problem for historians, Burke suggested, is making a narrative thick enough to deal not only with the sequence of events and the conscious intentions of the actors in these events, but also with structures, institutions, modes of thought, whether these structures act as a break on the events or as an accelerator.
In practice, since the 1960’s thick narratives with pregnant principles have often taken the form of what historians somewhat ambivalently call “micro-histories”: stories about a single, usually very ordinary person, place or event, that seek to reveal the society’s broader structures. This work rests on the central premise that ordinary lives, thickly described, illuminate culture best.
Telling small stories, writing micro-histories, does not inevitably produce important scholarship. Just the opposite, alas, is far likelier. As Peter Burke warned, “The reduction in scale does not thicken a narrative by itself.” When micro-histories are good, they’re breathtakingly brilliant. When they’re bad, they’re pretty much worthless.
Now consider the history of journalism. If 20th century academic historians turned their backs on storytelling in the early part of the century, only to return to it in the late 1970’s, journalists trudged along a similar path. They scorn storytelling in favor of fact-finding, and then change their minds.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, according to journalist Jon Franklin, the best American writers, reporters included, began their careers and received their literary training writing short stories. The short story in its heyday was the universal school for writers, Franklin argues. The short story demanded the utmost of the writer, both technically and artistically. It served as the great eliminator of mediocre talent. When short story writers turned to reporting, they brought a desk drawer full of literary devices, an economy of prose, an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and a keen sense of plot and resolution.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s Franklin asserts, “The quality of journalistic writing was devastated by the demise of the short story apprenticeship. When journalism turned away from literature, newspaper and magazine writing lost its luster. Nonfiction wasn’t as good a training ground as the short story had been because it emphasized subject over form and rewarded reporting skills at the expense of writing technique.”
But when “In Cold Blood” was published in 1965, it melded the accuracy of nonfiction with the dramatic force of fiction and ushered in the new genre of nonfiction—a genre that today dwells in a foggy frontier between journalism and literature.
What’s to be gained by comparing the history of history with the history of journalism? A few critical insights. The revival of narrative in historical writing parallels the emergence of narrative journalism. In narrative history’s most celebrated invention, the micro-history, there is a passing resemblance to narrative journalism’s favorite form, the nonfiction short story.
Micro-histories and nonfiction short stories have a good deal in common. Both genres emerged in the 1970’s in response to professional trends, especially prevalent in the 1950’s, that valued accuracy and analysis more than literary flair. Micro-history and the much-vaunted revival of narrative in historical writing were responses to structural or quantitative history. Narrative journalism and the nonfiction short story were reactions against investigative journalism’s emphasis on fact-finding over prose style.
Both micro-histories and nonfiction short stories tend to concern themselves with the everyday experiences of ordinary people; a means of offering broader cultural interpretations, moving from events to structures. Both genres selfconsciously employ the techniques of dramatic fiction, including character development, plotting and conflict resolution. Most micro-historians and narrative journalists aspire to write narratives thickened with the butter of detail and the flour of implication.
Micro-histories and nonfiction short stories also fall prey to the same dangers. Peter Burke considered small stories’ greatest pitfall to be their tendency to focus attention on the sensational. Both academics writing micro-histories and journalists writing nonfiction short stories are drawn to the drama of murder trials, suicides, kidnapping, rapes and other miscellaneous crimes and disasters.
It’s easy to push this parallel too far. Crucial differences separate these two genres. Micro-histories are not nonfic-tion short stories; they are micro in focus, not in length. Journalists sometimes write about the past, but most narrative journalism, of course, is not historical.
Still, the similarities are intriguing and they raise a key question. If narrative history and narrative journalism use similar devices, consider similar subjects, and are the consequence of related trends in the politics and the arts, why then are historians and journalists not on better terms? It must be said that a great deal of the animosity so commonly expressed by academic historians towards popular history boils down to this: History books are selling like hot cakes, but journalists are making all the money.
To be fair, most historians have few intellectual objections to a rattling good history, so long as the story is told in the service of an argument. Often it isn’t. In 1992 Peter Burke warned that the revival of narrative might lead to a return to pure antiquarianism; to storytelling for its own sake. Part of what grates academic historians is that many popular histories are, from their point of view, actually miscarried micro-histories. That is, they tell a small story but fail to use that story to interpret larger historical structures. At their worst, popular histories are all headlines. They gesture at significance but fail to demonstrate it.
Far from thickly narrating a life, the worst popular histories also tend to rip people out of the past and stick them to the present. These people from different places and times, they’re just like us, only dead. Bad popular history, like bad historical novels and films, manages at once to exoticize the past. Descriptions of clothes, hairstyles, houses and the minutia of daily life are always lovingly recreated while rendering familiar the people who lived in it. Fashions changed, but complicated, historically specific ideas like sovereignty or progress or childhood magically transcend history.
It’s just this kind of writing that [Princeton University historian] Sean Wilentz condemns as passive nostalgic spectacle. But is narrative and are journalists to blame? Since both historians and journalists have embraced narrative, the line between scholarly and popular writing is now much more difficult to discern. Truman Capote is not responsible for David McCullough, but he’s not irrelevant, either.
Much history today is written under the banner of narrative. Does it inevitably render its readers passive? No, but perhaps it should. One kind of passivity, or maybe we should call it enthrallment, is a measure of success. Readers can be nearly paralyzed by compelling stories confidently told. In the hands of a good narrator, readers can be lulled into alternating states of wonder and agreement.
Storytelling is not a necessary evil in the writing of history. It’s a necessary good. Using stories to make historical arguments makes sense, because it gives a writer greater power over her reader. A writer who wants to can pummel his reader into passivity, but a writer who wants to challenge his reader betters his odds to success by telling a story.