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In Defense of the Narrative

ISSUE:  Winter 1982
The Veracious Imagination: Essays on American History, Literature, and Biography. By Cushing Strout. Wesleyan. $17.50.

Historians and literary critics have in recent years challenged the interpretative legitimacy of the conventional narrative. Influenced by the innovative studies of the French Annales school and by the increased possibilties for the computer analysis of data, the most flourishing historiography today is engaged in problem solving. Analytic social historians avoid narrative history as old fashioned and unscientific. Concurrently, the structuralists among literary critics argue that the underlying forms of rhetoric transcend the temporal process inherent in the narrative. For structuralists historical explanation is merely a chronological rendering of events; it is only one way of depicting reality, not a privileged epistemology. Contemporary novels with their purposeful confusion of time have also called into question the adherence to a linear, temporal sequence. The storytelling of a Joyce, Faulkner, or Robbe-Grillet is a dramatic break with the orderly 19th-century narrative of a Dickens, Melville, or Dumas. The devaluation of the narrative has not only eroded the common ground of history and literature but reinforced historians’ rejection of literary evidence because it is not readily quantifiable and encouraged the aesthetic suspicion that textual interpretation can best proceed in an ahistorical way.

At the same moment analytic historians and structuralist critics have denigrated the narrative, a group of Anglo-American philosophers, among whom R. G. Collingwood was influential, have come to the defense. They refute the positivist argument that the narrative cannot be taken seriously as an explanatory method because it does not meet the necessary and sufficient conditions required by experimental science to establish lawful generalizations. Unlike a chronicle which only catalogues dates and events, they argue that a genuine narrative necessarily provides analysis, reflection, and explication through the ordering and evaluation of a complex interaction of events. Although the historical narrative does not establish the clear-cut causal relationship of physics, these philosophers maintain it does answer the fundamental questions of how and why events occurred.

Accepting the premises of the narrativist philosophers, Cushing Strout argues that the truth-seeking function of traditional storytelling gives history, literature, and biography overlapping concerns. He seeks to lessen the isolation of history from literature by showing that the simultaneous attention of the narrative to what happened and to what might have happened includes both disciplines. Yet, while examining the connection between history and literature, he is careful to differentiate between them and not to allow one to overwhelm the other. He prudently maintains that history is necessarily more literal than the novel because of its dependence on documentary source material and its responsibility to try to tell what really happened. He rejects the synchronic perspective of the structuralists which tends to fictionalize history as another form of rhetoric. The strength of The Veracious Imagination is in Strout’s insightful interpretations of the intersection of fact and fiction found in history, realistic novels, documentary dramas, and psychological biographies.

As one may expect in a series of essays written over the past 20 years, there is some repetition. The essays, however, hold together very well, individually and collectively, and they are well served by the introduction, “The Fortunes of Telling.” The writing is lucid, and the prose is mercifully free of jargon, which is a special virtue, given Strout’s ability to interweave philosophy, psychology, history, and literature. Two essays, “Causation and the American Civil War” and “Ego Psychology and the Historian,” are among the best anyone has written on these topics and serve to illustrate his argument for the narrative.

Strout’s significant contribution to the long-standing debate over the coming of the Civil War is to exorcise the spector of causation that has haunted historians. The concept of causality posits that legitimate explanation must be stated in terms of generalized abstract laws. When applied to broad social questions, the number of variables, the complexity of human motivation, and the lack of complete evidence frustrate the historical attempt to construct a meaningful causal formula. Rather than stating in scientific terms that slavery caused the Civil War, it is more accurate for the historian to explain how and why slavery permeated the institutions and ideology of the day. Strout’s well-taken point is that the Civil War was fought over issues related to slavery and not that slavery alone produced the war.

Instead of limiting narrative explanation to the standards of natural science, Strout argues that history is more akin to literature in its epistemology. By means of the narrative, the historian, novelist, and playwright unfold a story in which characters and circumstances interact over time to produce specific outcomes. Narrative explanation is more wide ranging, less exclusive, as befit its humanistic concerns, than causal explication. Within the limits of the evidence, the historian can gain insight into the actual by hypothesizing the possible. If Douglas had beaten Lincoln for the presidency, would the South still have seceded? The question forces closer attention to the effect of the election of 1860 on the South through the use of a fictional technique.

In philosophical terms, Strout points out that the dialectic quality of the narrative is at odds with the predictive nature of scientific causation. The present is not a replication of the past. The narrative must describe the ongoing and reciprocal influence of people and events in order to comprehend change and continuity over time, One cannot convincingly argue that the Civil War was inevitable in the way that one can know the outcome of a chemical reaction. Strout encourages debate over the cohesiveness and credibility of various narrative interpretations, but he warns historians not to impose causal explanation where it is inappropriate to the complexity of human experience and thereby obsfucate the issues.

Strout also does a fine job in clarifying the relevance of the work of Erik Erikson for the historian and critic in understanding human motivation and character development. A pioneer in the creation of ego psychology, Erikson’s theory of personality growth combines psychoanalysis with acute awareness of social and historical factors. Erikson’s ability to translate his model into an analytic and artistic study of an individual’s life is seen in his sensitive biographies of Martin Luther and Mohandas Gandhi. On the one hand, Strout rightly cautions Erikson’s followers not to turn ego psychology into a dogma in which theory substitutes for evidence and events are reduced to psychological phenomena. On the other hand, he argues that those who wish to cast psychohistory on Clio’s junk pile go too far. Strout wisely advocates a middle position. The strength of psychoanalysis for history and literature is not as a means for causal explanation in which the Oedipal complex determines all, but through its suggestion of new insights that can be used to construct a richer, more complete biography. Erikson’s concept of an identity crisis in young adulthood is such a case, because it calls special attention to the problems youth have in defining themselves in relation to their own goals and those of their parents. Utilizing Erikson’s perspective in a thoughtful way, Strout describes how the strong emotional bond between William James and his father significantly influenced the son’s career. The self-critical application of ego psychology to biography can thus address questions about a person’s life that were previously ignored or regarded as mystifying.

For those who would write psychological biography, Strout notes four methodological caveats. First, base the analysis of unconscious conflict upon concrete documentation from the subject’s life. Otherwise, speculation outstrips the evidence and leaves a tenuous argument at best. Second, be intellectually honest; admit ignorance. In regard to the paternity of Sally Heming’s children, it is possible, even probable, that Jefferson was the father, but the forthright researcher ought to admit that definite documentation is lacking. Third, extend the analysis of the subject beyond family-centered issues. Take advantage of the opportunity biography offers to examine how an individual dealt with the larger cultural and ideological issues of the day. And finally, in literary criticism, biographic insight is most illuminating when it delineates the relationship between the text and the author. For example, Justin Kaplan’s biography, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, is especially effective in linking the personal concerns of the novelist with his fictional narrators. The overall value of ego psychology for biography is in its potential to synthesize psychological, social, and historical analysis into a coherent narrative of an actual person’s life.

In other essays, Strout explores the link between history and literature. He takes the idea of the “veracious imagination” from George Eliot’s injunction to describe “the various steps by which a political or social change was reached, using all extant evidence and supplying deficiencies by careful analogical creation” (158). For Strout, realistic literature is at its best when the novelist or playwright recreates the verisimilitude of the documented past while extending historical comprehension through artistic probing. Historical novels such as Robet Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are successful in their respective depictions of the past through the use of an analogous fictional character to portray a real political figure and through a symbolic evocation of the black experience in America. The triumph of E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is that the imaginary description of the Isaacson family closely mirrors what was historically possible (in regard to the Rosenberg spy case). Doctorow fails, however, in Ragtime to establish a convincing authenticity because of the exaggerated fictionalization of his characters and the jarring anachronisms. Strout’s interpretations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in terms of the evangelical pietism of antebellum America, of Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night in the tradition of the confessional memoir, and of the mixed success of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in drawing parallels between the Salem witch hunts and the McCarthy hearings are instructive in defining the common ground between fact and fiction.

To use Antonio Gramsci’s phrase, Strout wages war on the intellectual front. He challenges the “voracious imagination” of the structuralist critics that impugns the value of the narrative, substitutes form and rhetoric for the concerns of time and place, and obscures the distinction between the imaginary and the actual. His qualified defense of psychological biography is persuasive, and his application of the touchstone of the “veracious imagination” to judge realistic literature works well. Overall his essays locate people in history as self-conscious actors; they provide a sound theoretical base and a practical interpretative framework for humanist studies.


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