Monday, March 15, 2010


Sitting in my grandparents' house, sometimes I am amazed by the depth of history that surrounds me. I know, I know - I'm an historian, it's what I do. But, honestly, my family's history is often so much more interesting than the macro-histories that I consider daily for work. Don't get me wrong, I love both micro and macro histories. But there is something that touches my soul with personal stories that doesn't quite happen when considering larger stories like the Enlightenment in Europe in the 1700s. I tell my students that history is a collection of stories that we tell about ourselves and our ancestors that together weave together a fabric upon which our identities, values, fears, and questions can be found.

I first was introduced to this idea of history as stories in an Environmental History seminar in my doctoral program. (Why it took so long to see the field this way, I'm not sure.) The article was William Cronon's "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative," in The Journal of American History, 78 no. 4 (March 1992): 1347-1376. In the article, Cronon describes how histories contain specific plots, and those plots are intricately connected to the kind of narrative that the historian uses to describe that plot. He says that historians

"configure the events of the past into causal sequences - stories - that order and simplify those events to give them new meanings. We do so because narrative is the chief literary form that tries to find meaning in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality. When we choose a plot to order our environmental histories, we give them a unity that neither nature nor the past possesses so clearly. In so doing, we move well beyond nature into the intensely human realm of value" (1349).

It's a fascinating thought. The kind of stories we tell are tied to the plot of our histories, which can be fundamentally changed by a different narrative. In my own field, this is brutally clear. The foremost story told about modern Spain is fundamentally a declension narrative. It goes something like this: After 1588 when Spain lost the armada to England's superior navy, the country began a long, steep decline from its glory days under Carlos V and Felipe II. The country embarked on a series of ill-planned wars with the Netherlands and in aid of their Hapsburg cousins in Austria, while simultaneously losing control of the wealth of the Americas. At the end of the 17th century, the Hapsburgs lost control entirely, and the French Bourbons entered the picture with Louis XIV's grandson. While the Bourbons tried to salvage the mess that was the Spanish economy and resistance to modernization, the rest of the continent embraced the Enlightenment and began patterns of industrialization, urbanization, and modernization. By the 19th century, Spain was falling behind the rest of the world: they had no Enlightenment, no rising bourgeoisie, and so no democracy, no liberalism, and no modernity. Spain thoroughly failed in holding on to its American empire - seen most dramatically when the United States kicked her out of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, and the nation fell into a despairing spiral of self-doubt, insecurity, and political chaos. This of course led to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and Franco, and it was only when Franco thankfully died that Spaniards could pick up the pieces of their failed history and begin to join the rest of the First world."

The narrative - one of decline and failure - sets the stage for a long, long history that sees Spain as corrupt, inept, decidedly not modern, and unable to accept modernity. Therefore, the transition to a democratic government in 1975 is seen as a miracle, a strangely unique event that has virtually no real history in the nation at all. This narrative must express shock that Spain quickly vied for position and power in Cold War and post-Cold War Europe, becoming a key member of the European Union and in the fight against global terrorism.

But if the narrative changes, if the historian questions the decline plot and looks for a new story line, with a different starting point and ending point, the history changes dramatically. Broadening our idea of the Enlightenment so that it includes those groups who did not totally reject religion - as Jonathan Israel does in Radical Enlightenment and Richard Herr does in The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain - opens up the possibility the there was an Enlightenment in Spain, albeit not the radical Enlightenment of Spinoza or the atheistic Enlightenment of Voltaire. If there was an Enlightenment, then the lack of a distinct, liberal middle class by the early 1800s cannot be attributed to the failure of Enlightenment thought, and historians must reconsider the questions they ask about that middle class. My own advisor suggests that the public sphere functioned in a particular way in Spain, due to the low literacy levels - newspapers and pamphlets were read aloud at taverns and bars, and there was an oral sphere that fostered liberal debates despite the lack of a "Republic of Letters," as Dena Goodman described it in France.

And the changes go on. By changing the plot at one point, by not adhering automatically to a declension narrative at this one point, the rest of Spanish history begins to shift. Instead of Spain being a backward country that barely is considered part of the European continent - and we have Napoleon to thank for saying that "Europe ends at the Pyrenees" - we begin to see how processes and intellectual movements enter into, work within, and are adapted by groups in Spain. We start to see not a 500-year decline, but an ebb and flow, just like in the rest of Europe, albeit with its own peculiarities and speeds.

It's completely fascinating!

Cronon's short article encouraged me to consider the plot devices my fellow Hispanists use to create the quilt that is Spanish history. But it also moved me to reconsider the way I teach my own students.

While most of my students come into their freshman history class with me expecting that history is primarily a series of dates connected to facts and names that should be memorized, they find that I am more interested in them weaving a story together. I would rather them be able to explain the overall plot - the introduction, the problem, the climax, the resolution - than necessarily remember who said "War is hell" on which date. I feel strongly that if they understand the plot, they can begin plugging in the minutia, the exact dates and the quotes and the names and battles. I want them to see that history encompasses all of human experience. If you can tell a story about it, you can tell its history.

I think that's why I love sitting in this room in my grandparents' house so much. On the wall are pictures of my grandfather's C-47 in WWII and his "Medaille de Jubile" - a medal and certificate of thanks from the French government for being part of the liberation of France. I can plug his story into the larger stories of US history, of World War II, of European history. I also see his college diploma - a testament to both his determination and the success of the GI Bill in the 1950s - and plaques of commemoration for years of service to the city of Los Angeles. I also see my family's pictures laid out, each one offering a glimpse of our rich stories. My favorite picture is one of my great grandmother, whom I never met. She was a flapper, and in the picture she is wearing a fur coat and looks more like a glamorous movie star than most movie stars. Her life was turbulent, but it is a part of my story, and I love her.

Stories are one way that we make sense of who we are. I feel honored that I get the chance to talk about these stories every day. After all, I'm just a story teller at heart!

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