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On Narrative History

December 11, 2018

Narrative history is the form of history that the general public reads. Do academic historians have a duty to convey history in a storytelling form?

Narrative history is storytelling about the past.

In nineteenth-century America, narrative history was the predominant form for writing history. These histories were focused on conservative nationalist storytelling and relied heavily on the use of detailed description. Examples of such histories are the multivolume works France and England in North America by Harvard Law School–educated historian Francis Parkman, History of the United States of America under the Constitution by law professor and historian James Schouler, and A History of the People of the United States: From the Revolution to the Civil War by civil engineer and historian John Bach McMaster.

Following the establishment of history as an academic discipline in the late nineteenth century, university-trained historians, with a few notable exceptions, discarded the lengthy narratives of their predecessors, replacing narrative stories with succinct summary paragraphs. Instead of romantic literary writing, most university-trained historians now write specialized monographic histories that are rooted in analytical research based on the scientific method. They rely heavily on theoretical causal arguments and empirical analysis to support their theses and discursive contentions. Authors of monographs further assume that the reader has read and retained in memory the causal theories of the seminal works on the subject. Such readers are typically the limited few who work in the same specialized field.

Fifty years ago, historian Richard Hofstadter articulated the distinction between narrative history and monographic history as follows: “In the pattern of narrative history, each work, as a work of art, contained its own consummation. In monographic history, the consummation lay somewhere else, in some grander scheme of ideas or in the cumulative development of science.”  

As historian Gordon S. Wood explained almost a decade ago, however, “monographs have become so numerous and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives.”

The structure of the typical monograph further attracts a paucity of readers—sometimes only a few hundred, or even fewer in some cases. A pedantic study of a subject, and how the study advances or reconceptualizes the scholarly discourse, is suitable for specialists in the field but is of little interest to persons outside of this small cadre of academics.

The general public instead reads narrative history, but, as Wood explains, “academics have generally left narrative history writing to the nonacademic historians who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists.” These “nonacademic historians”—who include such notables as David McCullough, Bruce Catton, Barbara W. Tuchman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael Beschloss—lack graduate history degrees. And yet the general public and news media identify them as “historians” without qualification.

While I generally concur with Wood that academic historians are best suited to write narrative history “solidly based on the monographic literature,” I disagree with his apparent assumption that they are, in general, capable of writing publishable narrative history without additional training or experience. As Wood acknowledges, academic historians are trained to write their dissertations in the monographic form.

Early career historians typically seek university presses to publish their first books so that they can obtain academic tenure. University presses subject book manuscripts to a peer review process in which academic field specialists review the manuscripts and either recommend or decline to recommend publication in their written comments. Because many peer reviewers write primarily monographs, their comments tend to reinforce compliance with this form of publication.

Public history programs can address this void in the graduate history curriculum. To quote historian Daniel J. Walkowitz, “All efforts to conceptualize and present the past to nonacademic audiences are public history.” Because of their required focus on monographic writing, however, only a small fraction of PhD historians have taken graduate coursework in public history and related courses in historical memory, oral history, and documentary film. Such courses, along with experience in narrative journalism, are useful for developing narrative history research and writing skills. To complement this curriculum, public history programs should include a narrative history course focused on studying narrative histories written by professionally trained historians such as Samuel Eliot Morison, Benjamin Quarles, Richard White, William Cronon, Alan Taylor, Martha Hodes, and Gordon Wood.

Wood also narrowly defines what subjects are suitable for narrative history. Wood holds to the traditional view that the subjects of “specialized studies,” which “find errors, openings, or niches in the historiography that they can correct, fill in, or build upon,” cannot serve as the subjects of popular narrative histories. He appears to adhere to the position that only the grand narratives of war, prominent leaders or innovators or cultural artists, national politics, human-caused or natural disasters, heroic expeditions or explorations, societal political or economic transformations, major technological innovations, large-scale migrations, and widespread political and social movements are appropriate for narrative history.

Wood is dismissive of the possibilities that the histories of marginalized communities and groups, disconnected from some calamitous event, offer to narrative history. With a few narrative exceptions—such as the biographies A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic by Alan Taylor—academically grounded works about small localized communities have been almost exclusively monographs. It is consequently little wonder that most historians equate social history of this type with monographs.

Similar to a historical novel centered on a composite individual or group, a narrative history of a non-mainstream community has the potential power of holding the attention and enveloping the imagination of a reader just as effectively as a traditional narrative history. By relating human experiences to both immediate and broader historical contexts, the historian can make academic history accessible to general readers. To quote William Cronon, “To recover the narrative people tell themselves about the meanings of their lives is to learn a great deal about their past actions and about the way they understand those actions. Stripped of the story, we lose track of understanding itself.”

Although historians may disagree about what subjects can serve as the basis for narrative history and the training required to write narrative history, there is a coalescing view that professionally trained historians should not leave narrative history principally to “popular” historians who lack formal graduate training in history. Because narrative history is the form of history that the general public reads, academic historians have a duty to write history that incorporates both causal theories based on the monographic literature and empirical research into a storytelling form.

Daniel H. Inouye, PhD, is a certified public historian, attorney, and the author of Distant Islands: The Japanese American Community in New York City, 1876–1930s (2018), a narrative history of New York City’s Japanese American community between America's centennial year and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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