‘Narrative History and the Collapsing of Historical Distance’ by Christopher Jones

After reading Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, recently published by Yale University Press as part of the ‘New Directions in Narrative History’ series,  guest blogger Christopher Jones found much to discuss. The book raises questions surrounding the relationship of an individual reader to the figures of a historical narrative; how does one relate to the characters of historical narrative and can we become too emotionally involved with the stories we find there? In this guest article, Jones thoughtfully considers a debate which has caused scholars countless problems and continues to colour the way in which we read history: How do we navigate the potentially turbulent waters of an emotional reportage whilst maintaining a objective distance?

Among the highlights of my Christmas was receiving Catherine Brekus’s recently-released volume, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early Americaa fascinating account of an eighteenth-century evangelical woman whose life experiences intersected with, and speak to, several importance events and themes from the period. At the time of writing, I’m about half-way through and can’t recommend it enough. At a future date, I’ll try and post a more formal review (or at least lengthier thoughts) of the book, but wanted to briefly reflect here on something Brekus briefly discusses in her preface. “Reading Sarah’s reflections on her life,” Brekus explains, “reminds us of how far away the past is—but also how close.” Solidly grounding her subject’s experiences in its eighteenth-century context, she continues:

Sarah lived at a time when modern ideas about the reality of human freedom and the goodness of everyday life were still emerging, and we may find it hard to understand her unflinching belief in human depravity, her embrace of suffering as a positive good, and her fears about loving her family and friends too much. “The past is a foreign country,” the novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote. “They do things differently there.”

This is pretty standard fare from historians—especially those writing about the early modern era—and likely won’t raise any eyebrows among readers of this blog (it certainly didn’t mine). I was struck, however, by the rest of the above quoted paragraph:

But Sarah’s questions about the meaning of human life were ultimately universal ones, and her story can help us to reflect on our own understanding of the human condition. We, too, debate over how to define happiness, and we, too, wonder if there is any such thing as absolute truth. Sarah was profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment world in which she lived, a world that stood on the brink of our own, and although we may try to distance ourselves from the past by describing our culture as postmodern, we continue to wrestle with the legacy of the Enlightenment in its many forms—whether its defense of capitalism, its commitment to humanitarianism, or its optimistic faith in human nature. (p. xiii)

Sarah Osborn's World

Sarah Osborn’s World

I was struck not because I necessarily disagree with her—I too have emotionally empathized and sensed common ground with historical subjects whose diaries and letters I’ve gone through and at times recognize questions, struggles, and truths of my own life in those of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century individuals I write about. At the same time, I’ve been trained to recognize the wide chasm of historical context and experience separating me from them and have spent no small amount of time stressing to students in my survey course, to family and friends who ask about my work, and (more often than I would like to admit) in both online and in-person political debates with others on the “Founding Fathers’” views on any number of contentious topics in contemporary political discourse.

Rather than rehash age-old debates over the historian’s craft, her/his/our ability to accurately understand and write about the past, and the ends (both intended and not) to which that study is used, I’m particularly interested here in better understanding the relationship between narrative history and the collapsing of historical distance. Sarah Osborn’s World is the latest volume to appear in Yale University Press’s New Directions in Narrative History series, edited by John Demos and Aaron Sachs. A previous volume published as part of the series—Craig Harline’s Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (see the Junto’s own Ben Park’s thoughtful review here)—went a step further than Brekus’s volume on this front, placing the story of one of his own close friend’s conversion to Mormonism and subsequent leaving of the faith alongside that of a seventeenth century Dutch Protestant who converts to Catholicism. Where Brekus quotes L.P. Hartley’s famous quip in explaining historical distance between the researcher and her subject, Harline opens his volume by quoting Emerson, who (perhaps just as famously) maintained that “The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible. We, as we read, must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner; must fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience, or we shall learn nothing rightly.” To this Harline adds his own thoughts:

This book is about conversion’s most painful sort of tearing: that in families.

It starts with a story from the Reformation, to show how a family in that new age of religious choice might cope (or not) when some in the family chose one religion and some another. But it includes a story from the present as well, to show that the difficulties of conversion have hardly disappeared for families today, and that we moderns, who imagine ourselves far beyond the silly religious bickering of our forebears, are in fact wonderfully like them, and can therefore learn much from even the most obscure of them, if we would only look. For though our bickering may take on new forms, it is in spirit (and often in form too) much like theirs, and can just as easily lead us into the same terrible dilemma they knew: whether to choose our relationships of our convictions. (pp. ix-x)

Putting aside (if possible) the relative merits of such an approach, I wonder what it is about narrative history in particular that seems to lend itself to collapsing the distance discussed above. Is it a natural outgrowth of the approach (perhaps storytelling is one of those absolute truths Brekus mentions?), or is this something more calculated, the effort of authors and editors to both push traditional boundaries of historical methodology and to connect with a broader readership primarily interested in a good story more than an accurate understanding of the past in which it takes place (a related and important discussion in and of itself)?

About the Author:

Christopher Jones is a PhD candidate in early American history at the College of William and Mary, where he is currently researching and writing a dissertation entitled ‘Religion and Revolution in the Atlantic World: Methodism in North America and the Caribbean’.

This article originally appeared on The Junto Blog

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