Narrative History

Historians have always crafted narratives. War. Peace. Political battles. Feuds in the hollers. Floods on the Mississippi. Hurricanes. Strikes. Assassinations. Voyages to known and unknown places. Trials of the century. Personal quests. Leaders with uncommon touches and tragic flaws. This is the stuff of great narrative and the stuff of narrative history—stories about the past told with verve and drama but also with strong arguments and thick footnotes.

Over the years, historians—and here we’re talking largely about American, university-trained and -based scholars—have produced numerous libraries’ worth of moving tales spiced with telling details set against carefully drawn backdrops and built around scrupulously fleshed-out characters. Just like any good nonfiction instructor, Samuel Morison, one of the 20th century’s most brilliant and widely read historians, urged his Harvard graduate students to read more than academic books and journals. According to a recent article in The New Yorker, Morison told them to study the art of the novel and the grace of the essay. Without this grounding, he feared that his students would write only “dull, solid” monographs. Now Morison wasn’t a self loathing historian, just a realistic one. Each “dull, solid” book and article, he knew, added to the base of historical knowledge, but that was it. No one outside the small cohort of scholars in a subfield would ever read them. For most historians, this was OK. Tenure and promotion came through deeply researched accounts of wars, trials and political campaigns targeted at other academics—not through broadly conceived narratives aimed at large audiences.

The scope of the historical profession narrowed a bit more in the 1960s and 1970s. Borrowing techniques and approaches from social scientists, historians churned out streams of studies tightly focused on the daily lives of ordinary, often forgotten people and on long-term patterns of work, mobility and reproduction that showcased method, data sets and argument over plot, suspense and character development. Some deliberately shied away from artful storytelling, fearful that the hints of play and performance that came with narrative would take away from the veracity and seriousness of the accounts. Better in this professional climate to construct tables and long, discursive footnotes than chiseled characters and in-depth scenes.

Journalists, features writers and biographers quickly stepped into the narrative void left by the historians’ social-scientific turn. Skilled storytellers and diligent researchers like J. Anthony Lukas and Robert A. Caro told gripping tales of race and disappointment, city building and power brokers. Audiences came running. David McCullough recounted the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and John Barry traced the floodwaters of the Mississippi, and people turned the pages. Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose—Ambrose started out as a university-based historian but chafed under the academy’s narrative and political constraints, or so he said—retold sprawling national narratives of good and evil, and book-buyers swarmed. Taylor Branch and Edmund Morris buried themselves in the archives and produced gripping, authoritative accounts of the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Teddy Roosevelt, and the scribes of The New York Review of Books debated their insights.

Just as Samuel Morison had predicted, strong writers of compelling narratives had, by the 1980s, taken over the popular market for history. Unwilling to concede the past to nonprofessionals, some historians looked to strike back. But they knew that this meant rediscovering their field’s deep narrative traditions. It also meant taking on the big topics. And it meant imitating the narrative strategies deployed so well by journalist-historians like Goodwin and Caro—with, of course, fatter footnotes and longer bibliographies.

Reflecting the trend, in 1989, Princeton professor James M. McPherson crafted “Battle Cry of Freedom,” a vivid, even moving account of the military history of the Civil War. In the following decade, Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College published “American Sphinx,” an elegant look at the private Thomas Jefferson. This triggered a sort of founding fathers revival, as professors—this time with the journalists following—raced to see who would get out the next book on Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams. Others who missed this bandwagon turned their attention to Lincoln and the noble grunts of World War II. As these accounts started to appear on The New York Times’ Best Sellers List, other historians hired agents and looked to capture a slice of this growing audience. But even more, the renewed interest in narrative—and royalty checks—trickled down. Graduate programs from Princeton to North Carolina to Southern California started to offer writing seminars alongside methods classes, featuring the work of Lukas and McPherson as well as of Gay Talese and Philip Roth.

But the grand narrative of the big event and the big leader wasn’t the only thing happening in the history business. The freedom movements of the 1960s rocked the academy. African-Americans, women, Native Americans, Chicanos, gays, lesbians and transgendered people demanded not just equity before the law but also a place in the nation’s past. Yet, including the “others” upset some firmly established master narratives. Things weren’t so clear anymore. Whose story was true, historians wondered? The answer depended on the perspective.

Some historians concluded—with great misgivings—that truth was subjective. It wasn’t that there wasn’t truth but that truth—the past—looked different depending on where you stood. For some historians, this insight freed them from the restrictions of the omnipresent third-person narrative—the detached and commanding position adopted by historians. Some scholars, then, began to experiment with voice and structure. With a novelist’s eye for detail and phrasing, James E. Goodman, in “Stories of Scottsboro,” retold the tragedy of the wrongly accused Scottsboro boys from a multiplicity of angles with each chapter changing perspective. In his follow-up book, “Blackout,” an account of the night the lights went out in New York City in 1977, he retells the event in a frenzy of over 50 short-story blasts. Never does he step in and say which account is true and which is not. The complexity of experience is what matters to him.

Others have injected themselves into their stories. Art historian Eunice Lipton went searching for Manet’s model in “Alias Olympia” and found herself. In “Blood Done Sign My Name,” Timothy B. Tyson recalled a racially charged murder in his southern hometown to reinterpret the Civil Rights Movement and the politics of his minister father. And John Putnam Demos—a Yale professor and highly respected colonial historian—ran into some dead ends in the archives, but rather than give up his stories, he imagined his way into the heads of his characters, writing brief fictions as history in “The Unredeemed Captive.”

Creative nonfiction writers have been slow to pick up on historians’ narrative experiments. But this—and perhaps some advice about conducting research—is perhaps the most valuable thing historians have to offer. Truth is precarious, unstable and elusive, and this—as Goodman, Demos and the others show—is the real drama of the past. The search for truth, the battle for whose truth matters and what truth gets codified into official histories, textbooks and monuments, is the stuff of stories—tense, suspenseful stories—the stuff of both creative nonfiction and narrative history.