Historical Principle: Be Wary of the Narrative Arc.

In a series of prior posts, I discussed Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time mystery novel in terms of the historical principles/research problems that it raises.

These second series of posts are those posts reposted and edited with supplemental material about research and history in general.

In Daughter of Time, policeman Grant discusses the type of history told in tidy, compartmentalized stories:
This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered. This was what remained in their minds when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud's Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness (p.25). 
Grant is referring to how "we" (meaning me and other people) remember something like the American Revolution in terms of Paul Revere. The Boston Tea Party. Crossing the Delaware.  Discrete, compartmentalized events.

And I defend this--after all, people should have some idea of the order of history, some starting point. I even point out that sometimes the streamlined "easy" story turns out to be kind of true. Yes, more people than Paul Revere headed out to warn colonists that the "British are coming!" But modern scholarship reveals that Paul Revere's efforts had greater impact and spread the message to more people than either Dr. Prescott's or William Dawes' (see Gladwell's The Tipping Point). Longfellow's choice of hero carries a core of truth.

I also complain about well-educated adults who confuse the Middle Ages with the 1700s (I'm not kidding). Or don't realize that people were emigrating West before the Civil War (and after). So knowing the order of events in history can be useful.

However, in this revised post, I want to focus on the need to question the narrative arc, whether conservative or progressive. It is surprisingly difficult to convince adult people that a narrative like, "Women wanted the vote but men tried to stop them" is far too simplistic. In truth, many women wanted the vote and many men helped them. And a large number of women opposed the suffrage movement and although they were linked to men, the anti-suffragists were surprisingly independent from men (though they used men when convenient).

A good example of my own experience with narrative arcs being upended is Rosie the Riveter and WWII. The narrative arc I learned growing up is that women didn't work before WWII. Then the war came and women went to work.

Actually, no. The war came and women were able to get well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Women were already working. The suburban homemaker of the two-parent/one-income family is fairly exclusive to an extremely small portion of American women and to, well, all of history (taking into consideration that for much of history, men and women worked out of the same location--and yes, they were both bringing in income; check out Martha Ballard).

The nature of work changed over the years, but again, many of the women who went to work in the factories were women who were already working outside the home. They liked the jobs because they paid well, they paid for schooling, and the women often mastered them very quickly. When the war ended and soldiers came back, the propaganda machine said, "Okay, women, go back to your children." But these were women who already belonged to two-income households or were the sole breadwinners of one-income families. They didn't go back home. They went looking for another job.

Conclusion: Be careful of the narrative that insists that once upon a time, EVERYBODY was like THIS.

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

History is always more complex than we think. I knew people immigrated to the West prior to the Civil War since I grew up in Texas and in school you get one year of Texas History (as opposed to American History or World History.) Because of that I knew about early settlements.

I find it weird that people would think of the 1700s as the Middle ages, but I probably shouldn't. It's not anything new. C.L. Moore wrote a series of pulp stories about warrior woman named Jirel of Joiry. She dated the stories in the 1500s even though it was suppose to be Dark Ages France.