August 11, 2010

excerpts: Narrative History

From Gordon S. Wood's The Purpose of the Past, Chapter 3:
Never before have historians been so ready to grasp the central insight of all social science - that society and culture transcend the particular aims and purposes of individuals, that people make their social and intellectual history but are at the same time bound by what they have made. Faced with such an insight, old-fashioned narrative history, which assigns personal responsibility for what happened in the past to particular people, loses much of its meaning.
No doubt there is always a constructed character to all history writing, but this fabricated character seems particularly evident in narrative history. The past, after all, is not a series of stories waiting to be told, as has become more and more apparent in the twentieth century. [In a story, i]ncidents no longer just pile up upon one another; they are drawn together, connected, and given meaning by the ending of the story. The plots, the coherence, and the significance of narratives are always retrospective.
However - and yes, the author thinks this is a good thing:
Most historians, especially in the English-speaking world... still hold to a traditional epistemology, still believe that the past is real and that the truth of it can be recovered through storytelling. The rest of the intellectual world may be falling over itself with excitement in discovering the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of representing reality in any form of language or writing. But not historians. While intellectuals everywhere are promoting "structuralist" and other forms of nonlinear thought, most historians cling innocently to their Newtonian belief that one thing follows another in a coherent and causally related narrative pattern. It may be that traditional narrative writing depends on historians' remaining mentally in the nineteenth century...
The bulk of Chapter 3, Narrative History, was previously published as a book review in the New York Review of Books, August, 1982. The book (2008) includes some of Woods' follow-up reflections, of which I now also quote:
Many historians have blended storytelling with analysis very nicely and, it is hoped, will continue to do so.
Yep. Yep. Yep.

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