Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Maier on Narrative and History (but not Narrative History)

I just heard the Pauline Maier on C-Span flogging her new book; she said: "Historians don't write narratives, they make arguments."

This will, of course, come as a surprise to readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin or Shelby Foote, or David McCullough and their ilk. But I think it is true and, perhaps more important, true in two rather different senses.

Well: the threshold point is, of course, that history is what historians do and historians are people who occupy positions in departments of history on university faculties. Those other people aren't historians; they are, well, they are merchants of narrative.

But go on to the broader question of why historians don't do narrative. As I say, I think there are two reasons.  One: history, like any other academic discipline, is an intense in-group conversation limited to those who understand the nature and limits, and, more important, the "history" (oops) of the conversation.  I think it is Stanley Fish who offers the telling example: id I write an article called "what I think about Milton" and hurl it in through the transome, no one will read it.  If I write "what  Fensterwald thinks about what Gooch thinks about what Millington thinks about Milton," then after due anonymous vetting by the allies of Fensterwld, Gooch and Millington, I may have half a chance of getting into print.  Or as someone else said, it's like coming late to a Friday night happy hour and trying to catch the conversation in the middle.  Anyway, this structure impels argument and disfavors narrative.

But so far, what I say might be true of any academic discipline, which brings me to my second point: with history it is not just the incidental irrelevance of narrative; it is their positive aversion to anything linear.

On reflection, it is possible to trace the history of this phobia: life isn't narrative, life is one damn thing after another, and any enterprise that tries to put narrative on it is bound to falsify.

I suspect the critical figure in this, ahem, narrative, is Fernand Braudel: not the first but probably the best known of the French Annales school, half a dozen or more of whose works appear to persist in print in English.  In his first major work--The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, you can watch him struggling to free himself from histoire événementielle, in favor of--well, he called it the longue durée but the fact is there isn't much duration of any sort.  You do get a feel for physical structure, for geography, and perhaps for patterns of interchange but it certainly is a style of history that has never been done on this grand a scale before.

His other famous work, published in the United States as Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, is even more diffuse, as if he had unshackled himself completely from the narrative form.

It's a major intellectual achievement, driven by a powerful insight, but as happens with powerful insights, a great many sins have been credited in its name.  It is in this light that Maier is correct when she says that "historians don't write narratives."  Whether "they make arguments" is a different question. In their guise as participants in a shred academic enterprise, perhaps they do; as I say, that is what shared academic enterprises are all about.  But as children or grandchildren of Braudel sometimes they (but not Maier) simply tip over the box of three-by-five cards.

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