“Finding New Angles at Which to Enter Reality”

It should be said, first of all, that description is itself a political act. … Writers and politicians are natural rivals. Both groups try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory.

— Salman Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” London Review of Books (Oct. 7, 1982)

“Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable”

I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.

One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.

I think talking about them together could be illuminating.


First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.

Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.

Continue reading ““Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable””

The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered

If you’ve spent much time thinking about narrative, or about truth-telling in general, you have probably encountered the word Rashōmon.

Cover of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray for the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon.

The 1950 film by that name, directed by Kurosawa Akira, made a deep impression on American storytellers and critics. Not only has it been credited with “effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West,” in the words of Roger Ebert. Its title also has given us an irreplaceable metaphor in English: the Rashōmon effect.”

Unfortunately, most Americans’ impression of this film is wrong. It contradicts both the details and the argument of Kurosawa’s movie. (Yes, I appreciate the irony.)

The movie definitely has an argument. The director said so. And the film itself isn’t exactly subtle about it. Of course, viewers should form their own opinions about any work of art, and anyone who tries to tell true stories—including a history teacher—may benefit from watching Kurosawa’s classic film for themselves. But if you do that, I recommend trying to experience it without the preconceptions that American popular culture has grafted onto it.

You may find, as I did, that this great work of art speaks to you in ways we have not been led to expect.

Continue reading “The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered”

How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II

This spring, I’m teaching a college course called United States History Since 1865. It’s a staple of American curricula. I have decided that it might be interesting to provide a walkthrough of the first lecture.

This should be an opportunity to articulate, step by step, some basic intuitions about how to achieve truthful storytelling in the classroom. (It’s also a chance to show—in a real situation rather than a political taking point—how I handle “divisive concepts” and “widely debated and currently controversial issues” related to American racism, inasmuch as this first lecture was about Reconstruction.)

This lecture was not perfect. It didn’t represent especially sophisticated historiography. But I am going to try to use it now to demonstrate the problem-solving nature of an interactive lecture about a fraught topic.

Specifically, I believe this walkthrough will illustrate the following nine aspects of my method for telling a story in the classroom:

  • Setting scenes
  • Posing problems
  • Integrating primary sources into a lecture
  • Enlisting students in telling the story
  • Showing change over time through examples
  • Identifying specific turning points
  • Explaining the significance of key memorizable concepts
  • Building to a crisis, confrontation, or moment of decision
  • Creating an open or provocative ending

Each of these elements will appear in the description that follows, and most will appear several times.

Continue reading “How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II”

Qualities and Events in Storytelling

Values are the soul of storytelling. Ultimately ours is the art of expressing to the world a perception of values.

For example, alive/dead (positive/negative) is a story value, as are love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, courage/cowardice, loyalty/betrayal, wisdom/stupidity, strength/weakness, excitement/boredom and so on. All such binary qualities of experience that can reverse their charge at any moment are Story Values. …

Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? … If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent.

—Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: It Books, 1997), 33-36

Inner and Outer Problems

Every hero needs both an inner and an outer problem. In developing fairy tales for Disney Feature Animation, we often found that writers, in the early drafts, would give the heroes a good outer problem: Can the princess manage to break an enchantment on her father who has been turned to stone? Can the hero get to the top of a glass mountain and win a princess’s hand in marriage? Can Gretel rescue Hansel from the Witch? But sometimes writers neglected to give the characters a compelling inner problem to solve as well.

Characters without inner challenges seem flat and uninvolving, however heroically they may act. They need an inner problem, a personality flaw or a moral dilemma to work out. They need to learn something in the course of the story: how to get along with others, how to trust themselves, how to see beyond outward appearances. Audiences love to see characters learning, growing, and dealing with the inner and outer challenges of life.

—Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 4th ed. (Studio City, Ca.: Michael Wiese Productions, 2020), 105

History Wars: Views from Five Illinois High School Teachers

This summer, at Illinois State University, the historian Andrew Hartman organized a graduate seminar around the topic of American history survey courses. He focused especially on “the history wars”: contemporary political debates about how U.S. history should be taught. Most of his students were teachers already working in secondary schools.

Five of these high school history teachers wrote essays that now have been published in the new (fall 2021) issue of Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Introducing these essays, Hartman explains the assumption and the common reading that underpins the five teachers’ work:

One of the most powerful forms of constructing the American history narrative can be found in surveys of U.S. history, books assigned in high school and college classrooms that sometimes even attract readers beyond the classroom. In short, the course objective was to think deeply about the construction of the narrative of American history by reading, analyzing, and critiquing five of the most popular and intriguing U.S. history surveys, written from a diverse range of perspectives and with distinct objectives. We read, in the following order: Wilfred McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom; and Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. We also read the 1619 Project and the 1776 Report.

The teachers’ contributions to this forum are:

Hilary Mantel’s Lectures on Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel in 2010 (photograph by Chris Boland | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Four years ago, the novelist responsible for Wolf Hall and other acclaimed works of historical fiction delivered a series of five public lectures for the BBC. Collectively entitled “Resurrection: The Art and Craft,” Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are still available online.

I think very highly of these addresses, which show great sensitivity to the nature of history as well as literature. Anyone responsible for historical storytelling—in fiction or nonfiction—could benefit from them. But they’re a little difficult to find on the BBC’s website, so I’m arranging direct links here.

  1. The Day Is For the Living, June 13, 2017, Manchester (transcript PDF): “Memory, mourning, and how the stories we tell ourselves shape our view of the past—and what happens on the threshold when private and public history meet.”
  2. The Iron Maiden, June 20, 2017, London (transcript PDF): “How does fact pass so readily into legend? Do we use the past as a mirror, and prefer a version that flatters us?”
  3. Silence Grips the Town, June 27, 2017, Antwerp (transcript PDF): “The story of a Polish writer whose efforts to work history into fiction were so intense that they consumed and killed her. Was she a martyr to history? Or just wrongheaded?”
  4. Can These Bones Live?, July 4, 2017, Exeter (transcript PDF): “The task of the historical novelist is to balance the claims of fact against the power of invention. It’s a balance that must be kept phrase by phrase [through] craft and technique.”
  5. Adaptation, July 11, 2017, Stratford-upon-Avon (transcript PDF): “Adaptation [for stage and screen] is not a compromise or a betrayal of an original, but an actual necessary and creative act, one we perform every day.”

To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes

When I started teaching history on my own—working from my own syllabus rather than assisting someone else—I was thrown into a college U.S. history course just a couple of weeks before the semester started. I was still a graduate student, though I had my master’s degree, and I was replacing another adjunct instructor at the last minute. (I would eventually get to meet her at a conference. She’s nice.) She had chosen a set of textbooks that I’d never heard of, much less seen, and I found the department’s description of the course bizarre.

When I walked into the classroom, which had broken desks and obvious water damage, I still didn’t have access to my university email account or the university library. For the first few days, I had to ask the department secretary to come unlock the classroom computer any time I planned to use it.

Did I mention this was going to be the first time I had ever taught my own solo course?

I won’t keep you in suspense: That semester did not end up being my best work.

Continue reading “To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes”

The Invisible Storyteller

A storyteller should be invisible, as far as I’m concerned; and the best way to make sure of that is to make the story itself so interesting that the teller just … disappears. When I was in the business of helping students to become teachers, I used to urge them to tell stories in the classroom—not read them from a book, but get out and tell them, face to face, with nothing to hide behind. The students were very nervous until they tried it. They thought that under the pressure of all those wide-open eyes, they’d melt into a puddle of self-consciousness. But the brave ones tried it, and they always came back next week and reported with amazement that it worked, they could do it. What was happening was that the children were gazing, not at the storyteller, but at the story she was telling. The teller had become invisible, and the story worked much more effectively as a result.

—Philip Pullman, “Magic Carpets: The Writer’s Responsibilities,” Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group Conference, Leeds, Sept. 2002; in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, ed. Simon Mason (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 9-10. Ellipsis in original.