American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 10


Thomas Crow
Barbara Jeanne Fields
Ernest S. Frerichs
David Hollinger
Sabine MacCormack
Richard Rorty
Catharine R. Stimpson

Narrative and the Making of History

Peter Conn
University of Pennsylvania

The fourth chapter of W E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is called “Of the Meaning of Progress.” In the chapter’s 10 pages, DuBois recalls his first teaching experience, two summers in the late 1880s when he set up school in a one-room shack in rural Tennessee and gave instruction to the children of the local black sharecroppers. The point of the chapter’s title is ultimately ironic: for America’s black people, especially in the South, progress is a delusion. In the years before and after the turn of the century, progress had been annulled by a multiplying Jim Crow system, and history refused to go forward.

Significantly, DuBois’s grim meditation takes the form of a narrative, an exemplary tale that opens with the phrase “Once upon a time . . . . ” However, in place of the assurances promised by that fully deliberated fairy tale formula, DuBois presents a story of disillusionment and death. In short, he has methodically dismantled the fairy tale, that elementary and even reductive instance of narrative predictability and ideological tidiness, in order to emphasize the burdens of reality.

DuBois’s pages might serve as a compressed emblem of more recent reconsiderations of narrative and the structure of the past. (Parenthetically, may I say that I instance DuBois to remind us that our recent ways of reading have indigenous as well as Continental lineage.) It has been suggested that the idea of progress was the commanding trope which—for several centuries—gave shape and coherence to history (and indeed to visions of the future as well). History (as explanation) has provided myths of coherence: transformations of the contingent into the necessary and natural; bridges over the gap between the opacity of events and the clarity of order. “Narrativity assures us in advance that it will all make sense someday” (Hans Kellner). In partial consequence, all historical statements, including descriptions, are heavy laden with ideology and intention.

In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois anticipated our contemporary feelings of belatedness, the dislocations that attend what Joel Colton has called our “post-imperialist, post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima, post-Vietnam, post-Gulag-Archipelago era.” Guided by his earlier, unmystified understanding of history’s suppressed political implications, DuBois sought both to resist the idea of a universalizing, totalizing “progress,” and to replace it with the contrariety of American black experience. DuBois also anticipated the shared project that links much of contemporary social history with new historicism—whatever their differences: a desire to give voice to utterance that has been “mistranslated” or silenced.

In a somewhat analogous way, the title of this session [Analysis, Narrative, and the Structure of the Past], which would, a generation ago or even more recently, have signified an item of consensus, now denotes an area of conflict. To put it simply, the past has no structure, at least not in the sense of a separate, objective, “given” reality, independent of our contemplation, patiently awaiting our discovery of it. Rather, the past is increasingly conceived as the malleable outcome of a set of transactions—dialogic, perhaps, or contestatory—in which meaning issues from the convergence of event, imagination, and our modes of discourse. New historicists “textualize” contexts by treating them in terms of documents, anecdotes, customs, mass movements, or cultural practices that mediate between history and the literary text. In Rethinking Intellectual History, Dominick LaCapra argues that “the very opposition between what is inside and what is outside texts is rendered problematic, and nothing is seen as being purely and simply inside or outside texts.” The documents and documentary traces in which individual and social life is embedded are never merely neutral records.

So, when literary scholars, eager to re-situate their texts in significant (and connectable) contexts, turn to history, and try to improve on an older, more mechanical, foreground-background model, they discover that many historians, having decided to subject their textual evidence to rigorous inquiry, have turned to literary theory. Both find themselves interrogating systems of discourse. The 19th-century dream of scientific precision, whether in literary or historical analysis, has given way to an acceptance of shared limits. Absolute standards of judgment have been challenged by the idea that norms are themselves the construction of communities; “truth” represents the protocols, conventions, and beliefs that prevail in a specific society at a specific moment.

Like all upheavals, the collapse of boundaries between, e.g., the “factual” and “fictional,” between the “documentary” and the “imagined,” between the metaphorical and the conceptual, is unsettling. Until recently, it was possible for readers to approach different sorts of texts under the guidance of different categorical and generic assumptions, assumptions that simplified (and economized) the tasks of analysis. The poems of Keats demanded explication, while the diaries of 19th-century American frontier women could be adequately served by summary and paraphrase. Insofar as one takes note of the linguistic turn in historical and literary study, such intrepretative certainties are challenged, perhaps abolished. More important—and the resistance that newer cultural studies evoke is a sign of that importance—it is clear that transformations in the assumptions and methods of literary and historical scholarship entail changes in the way in which literary and historical reality is conceived.

Our foundational critique has generalized our reconstructions, for instance of literary canons. The critique is central because we cannot proceed indefinitely by expansion alone: Joan Kelly’s question, “Was there a Renaissance for women?” succinctly implies how much more is at stake than merely “adding women.” At some level, perhaps most obviously in the syllabi of our unyielding 10-week quarters and 14-week semesters, every addition eventually involves a subtraction. (I refer to syllabi here, by the way, because they are perhaps the most rudimentary narratives in our professional discourse; they tell certain stories and exclude others. In American literature, to give only one familiar example, the sequence of readings traced an unfolding tale: from Benjamin Franklin to Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, through Mark Twain and Henry James, to Hemingway and Faulkner. If I understand Nina Baym’s analysis of this situation, the principal significance of our curricular narratives was not even that these texts were denominated “the best” that had been thought and said in America, but that they incarnated a representative, an “essential” American character.)

Stage one of our redefinition was to incorporate the texts of, e.g., women, or black Americans—and thus to tell a different story. But our inclusions have been somewhat miscellaneous. Stage two, which is currently underway is harder to specify, but may consist of some version or other of what Gerald Graff calls “teaching the conflicts”: in which the issues that interest and indeed exercise scholars in literature and history (and anthropology and sociology and so forth) become themselves the focus of pedagogical energy. Not to “tame the barbarians” nor to “double narcissism,” to quote two phrases I heard just a few hours ago, but to acknowledge the discords that in fact mark the current situation.

Or, we may develop cultural studies courses of different sorts, which take as their subjects thematic categories which link the disciplines, and which cut across what have been understood as texts and contexts, respectively—such subjects as childhood, sexuality, education, and the city, in which culture itself is presented as conflicted.

However, it is well to acknowledge what the politics of the academy predict: that such courses may not be sites of genuine conflict. They will be taught by faculty on one “side,” as it were, of the controversy. Indeed, as one article on Graff’s proposal has argued, the faculty on one side of the issue may refuse to concede that a genuine controversy exists, and may be logically impelled to that refusal.

In any case, such collaborative and collective experiments are worth all the effort they may take, if only to encourage our students and our other publics to question the view that texts are untouched by history, and that history is just one damn thing after another.