Friday, October 30, 2009

The Stories We Tell...

Richard Gamble, over at Front Porch Republic, has some important things to say about story-telling, the teaching of history, our national narrative and the nurturing of civic virtues, here. And he does so by way of Wendell Berry’s novel, Hannah Coulter. A history professor himself, Gamble wrestles with the role that historical perception plays in the formation of our national character. “I have not settled in my own mind the place of the teaching of history in the formation of character and judgment—I mean the place of real history with all its weightiness, and seriousness of purpose, and messy complexity as opposed to romanticized versions of the past that make us feel good about ourselves and serve some narrow agenda.” I know what he is talking about. Every fall I teach a course in Texas history, a subject particularly susceptible to this romanticized feel goodism.

Gamble begins with the following passage from Hannah Coulter:

But did we tell the stories right? It was lovely, the telling and listening, usually the last thing before bedtime. But did we tell the stories in such a way as to suggest that we had needed a better chance or a better life or a better place than we had?

I don’t know, but I have had to ask. Suppose your stories, instead of mourning and rejoicing over the past, say that everything should have been different. Suppose you encourage or even just allow your children to believe that their parents ought to have been different people, with a better chance, born in a better place. Or suppose the stories you tell them allow them to believe, when they hear it from other people, that farming people are inferior and need to improve themselves by leaving the farm. Doesn’t that finally unmake everything that has been made? Isn’t that the loose thread that unravels the whole garment?

And how are you ever to know where the thread breaks, and when the tug begins?

To the author, Berry is making the critical point that we should not only tell the right stories, but to tell the stories right.

The teacher of American history has the responsibility to do both of these tasks and to do them well. I do not believe that telling the right story means purging the American past of all its unpleasantness. We mourn and we rejoice when we read the American past. The American enterprise was and is a human enterprise, and as such it is filled with everything human: with sin, and the lust for dominion and all that comes with being part of the fallen and selfish City of Man, but mixed in with goodness and self-sacrifice and dedication to principle and real achievement.

Gamble takes a hard look at the themes running through contemporary American conservative thought: nationalism, populism, and imperialism. In the author’s view, “they have slowly destroyed our republic,” and have proven capable, as Berry notes, to “unmake everything that has been made.” Gamble voices concern over the telling of the “American story in such a way that the trajectory toward nationalism, populism, and empire appears preordained, a matter of America gradually becoming more and more what it was always meant by God or History personified to become.”

Gamble concludes with this: Children need to stop being children. The selective story of the American past needs to give way gradually and prudently to the larger story of America, a story fit for grownups and a not a story destined to keep citizens of the republic in a condition of perpetual adolescence. And coming back to Berry, he observes: "Hannah Coulter feared late in life that she and her husband had told their story the wrong way. Even if unwittingly, they had told their story in such a way that they made contentment and thankfulness unappealing and abnormal and restlessness and ingratitude appealing and normal. If we tell the American story in a way that makes nationalism, populism, and imperialism attractive, then we will not cultivate civic virtue with that story."

I couldn't agree more.

1 comment:

Milton T. Burton said...

I am surprised that no one has commented on so important a post. The next to last paragraph is worth the price of admission. The questions raised go right to the heart of the problem in this country---our assumption of "exceptionalism," which is both un-Christian and a grave violation of common sense. Am I the only one who finds it interesting that both Berry and Walker Percy reach the same conclusions on this matter?