Narrative or Ideas?

A couple of ideas that we’re interested in at Butterflies and Wheels were the focal points of a discussion among three historians I saw on tv recently. The US channel C-Span put Eric Foner, Robert Caro and Edmund Morris together to talk about the differences between popular and academic history, which is one issue that interests us, and in discussing that they also touched on the question of how to avoid the distorting effects of ideology in writing history. Edmund Morris is a popular biographer, who got a lot of attention, much of it derisive, for inserting himself, Zelig-like, into his biography of Ronald Reagan.
He asserted, in an emphatic and even truculent manner, that some history is “thematic” but biography has to be narrative, it has to tell the story of a life and that that story is inherently narrative and chronological, this happened and then that. He then added that academic history has become divorced from popular history because it deals with (said in a tone of increasing scorn) institutions, statistics, abstractions, when what people want is a story. Eric Foner, academic historian and author of many books accessible to a general audience, politely but firmly pointed out that that abstract and specialized kind of history provides the building blocks for the kind of popular history that Morris writes.

Morris also said, with even more disdain, that ideology has a ruinous effect on history writing. He appeared to be perfectly confident that he had no ideology himself–that, for instance, his belief in narrative and stories is not an ideology but simple transparent truth. Foner again civilly pointed out that this subject is a perennial one, that he discusses it with his students all the time, and that he tells them it is not possible to be ideology-free and the only safeguard is to know what one’s ideologies and presuppositions are. He didn’t spell it out for us but the implication for Morris’ self-satisfied naivete was obvious enough.

The discussion ended before there was time to go into the larger question of why Morris was so sure that the reading public wanted narrative and nothing but narrative. There was an essay on Morris in The New Republic last year that took him to task precisely for the mindless story-telling of his Theodore Rex, the pointless piling-up of detail, the silly you-are-thereness, the absence of ideas and thought, the studied ignoring of all the interesting scholarly work on Roosevelt in recent years. What makes Morris or anyone so sure that a general audience is interested only in story? He seems to think the notion is self-evident, but is it? Is it perhaps more of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Story is all the general audience is given, so they are trained to expect it, and to be uneasy with anything else? And it may be self-fulfilling in another way, too: if the writers of history become convinced that either audiences or (more likely) publishers will insist on Story and nothing but Story, they may decide they can’t be bothered to write anything so dull and unchallenging, hence popular history will become ever more impoverished. The issue is highly relevant to Butterflies and Wheels, because questions of public attitudes to science, truth, epistemology, understanding are the questions we want to raise, and they are inextricably involved in public education in the broadest sense, in education via popular science books, popular history books, popular philosophy books and magazines, and so on. This is a subject we’ll be coming back to.

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