Last updated: May 17, 2003

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[Narrative Psychology]

 Narrative in Other Disciplines

  History & Historiography

"To reconstruct a past world, doubtless with a view to the highest purposes of truth--what a work to be in any way present at, to assist in, though only as a lamp-holder!"

Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch (George Eliot), ch. 2.

Background  ||  Internet  ||  Bibliographical  ||  Theorists

Background Issues

History has always been a discipline of interpretation. Documents, records, reminiscences, artifacts, buildings, all of the materials produced by human culture and activity serve as raw material from which historians fashion their understanding and summarization of the past. How objective a process history can be remains an enduring focus of debate and disagreement among historians. However, over past decades, many historians have turned with increasing interest to study the records left by individuals of more ordinary achievement and lifestyle. Included among these records have been diaries, letters, autobiographies, and other personal accounts which convey the story of the individual and his or her world and allow their voices once more to be heard.

Since both historians and fictional writers are engaged often in telling the life of an individual, are there differences between historical "fact" and literary "fiction" ? Is it possible to distinguish between the stories produced in either genre and, if it is, what are the bases on which they may be differentiated? Some of the authors cited in the Bibliographical section below attempt to respond to this line of inquiry.

Theorists*Key Figures

Internet Resouces

History and the Limits of Interpretation [Rice University]
Center for the Study of Cultures & History Department
Symposium Held March 15-17, 1996

Selected papers found online at the site include the following:

Matrix: Center for the Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online [Michigan State University]

H-Net History and Social Sciences Online [Michigan State Univesity]. H-Net is an "interdisciplinary organization of scholars dedicated to developing the enormous educational potential of the Internet and the World Wide Web" (site blurb). The heart of H-Net consists of separate e-mail-based discussion lists across many topics in history and economics. This effort is generally considered to be one of the most successful scholarly uses of the Net yet developed.

Historical Voices.Org [MSU] "The purpose of Historical Voices is to create a significant, fully searchable online database of spoken word collections spanning the 20th century..." (site blurb)

StudsTerkel.Org [hosted by Matrix] Comprehensive site devoted to Terkel and his "Conversations with America." Includes downloadable/streaming recordings of his interviews across many years.

Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives [HBO and the Library of Congress]. Site devoted to the HBO documentary which premiered 2/10/03. There are a wide variety of resources here regarding slave narratives. The documentary is based upon the book of the same name by Harvard historian, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. This site notes that "[i]n the late 1930s, an estimated 100,000 former slaves were still alive in the United States. In the midst of the Great Depression, from 1936 to 1938, more than 2,000 interviews with one-time slaves were conducted for the Work Projects Administration (WPA) via its Federal Writers' Project, with the transcripts (written in the vernacular of the time) forming a unique firsthand record of slave life."


Online Collections of Narratives and Other Historical Documents

WPA Life Histories at the Library of Congress
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Documents from the Folklore Project, Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

These life histories were written by the staff of the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers' Project for the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936-1940. The Library of Congress collection includes 2,900 documents representing the work of over 300 writers from 24 states. Typically 2,000-15,000 words in length, the documents consist of drafts and revisions, varying in form from narrative to dialogue to report to case history. The histories describe the informant's family education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores, medical needs, diet and miscellaneous observations. Pseudonyms are often substituted for individuals and places named in the narrative texts.

Voices from the Dust Bowl
Library of Congress, American Memory Collection

"An online presentation of a contemporary ethnographic field collection that documented the lives of Dust Bowl migrants living in Farm Security Administration (FSA) camps in California in 1940-41. The highlight of the site is a very large collection of audio titles (334 in all), available in both RealAudio and .wav formats. Users can browse a list of over 100 song titles that includes links to each song's full text and recordings made in an FSA camp. Other audio titles include interviews, recordings of camp meetings, and more songs (without text). Users can also browse the audio collection with the performer/interviewee index or they can use an internal search engine. Additional features at this site include a collection of 23 photos, a sampling of dust jackets from recording discs, a bibliography, and print material from the collection including a scrapbook, newspaper clippings, camp newsletters, radio scripts, and correspondence between the ethnographers and LOC officials." Review by The Scout Report, January 9, 1998 (vol. 4, no. 36).

"California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900
Library of Congress, American Memory Collection

"Full texts and illustrations of 190 works documenting the formative era of California's history through eyewitness accounts. The collection covers the dramatic decades between the Gold Rush and the turn of the twentieth century. It captures the pioneer experience; encounters between Anglo-Americans and the diverse peoples who had preceded them; the transformation of the land by mining, ranching, agriculture, and urban development; the often-turbulent growth of communities and cities; and California's emergence as both a state and a place of uniquely American dreams." Taken from site description.

American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology
Bruce Fort, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

" From 1936 to 1938, over 2,300 former slaves from across the American South were interviewed by writers and journalists under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. These former slaves, most born in the last years of the slave regime or during the Civil War, provided first-hand accounts of their experiences on plantations, in cities, and on small farms. Their narratives remain a peerless resource for understanding the lives of America's four million slaves. What makes the WPA narratives so rich is that they capture the very voices of American slavery, revealing the texture of life as it was experienced and remembered. Each narrative taken alone offers a fragmentary, microcosmic representation of slave life. Read together, they offer a sweeping composite view of slavery in North America, allowing us to explore some of the most compelling themes of nineteenth-century slavery, including labor, resistance and flight, family life, relations with masters, and religious belief. This web site provides an opportunity to read a sample of these narratives, and to see some of the photographs taken at the time of the interviews." The entire collection of narratives can be found in George P. Rawick (Ed.). (1972-1979). The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Excerpts from Slave Narratives
Steve Mintz, University of Houston, TX

46 individual texts from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and its collection. The GL Institute homepage also provides bibliographical and syllabus materials on slavery from Prof. Mintz.

Civil War Letters of Galutia York
SUNY Morrisville's Local History Electronic Collection

A soldier's 48 letters, previously unpublished, have been inventoried, cataloged, transcribed, and are now accessible through the World Wide Web. Galutia York was the 19-year old son of a farm family from Hubbardsville in Madison County, New York. He enlisted in the 114th NYSV in August of 1862 and served until May of 1863 when he died in Louisiana. Additional illustrations of local interest are being added as well as illustrations of some of the sights Galutia saw and wrote home about.

Documenting The American South: The Southern Experience in 19th Century America 
Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"This database presents primary source materials documenting the cultural history of the American South from the viewpoint of Southerners. It offers diaries, autobiographies, travel accounts, titles on slavery and regional literature drawn from the splendid Southern holdings of the UNC--CH Academic Affairs Library." [from site description] The materials here are generally taken from published books of the period which have been digitized in both SGML and HTML format.

The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory
Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University

"The exhibition is divided into two main parts. The first, represented by an image of the burning city taken from a contemporary Currier & Ives lithograph, is titled The Great Chicago Fire. Its five chronologically organized chapters focus on the conflagration and the city's recovery. The second part is called The Web of Memory. Its governing image is a doll named Bessie, which was saved from the flames by six-year-old Harriet Peabody when her family gave up their home for lost. The six chapters in The Web of Memory examine a half dozen ways in which the fire has been remembered: eyewitness accounts, contemporary journalism and popular illustrations, imaginative forms such as fiction and poetry and painting, the legend of Mrs. O'Leary, souvenirs of various sorts, and previous commemorations by civic groups and by the Historical Society. In both The Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory, each chapter consists of three integrated sections: thematic Galleries filled with electronic images of a great range of artifacts, a Library of relevant texts, and an Essay that provides a context for both the Galleries and the Library. " From site Introduction. Permits the browser to examine differences across memory in the Web collection.

Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II
Rutgers University History Department (New Brunswick)

"The "Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II," directed by Sandra Stewart Holyoak, is an enterprise to record the personal experiences of the men and women who served on the homefront and overseas. It is based on in-depth interviews of individuals who lived through World War II, beginning with an initial target group of Rutgers College alumni and Douglass College alumnae (formerly, New Jersey College for Women). We currently feature 258 oral history interviews." [site description]

Oral History Online! [Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley]

This site complements the California Heritage Collection -- a " 'digital' archive containing photographs, pictures, and manuscripts from the collections of the Bancroft Library". It contains the following completed or in-process collections:

World War II Oral History [Aaron Elson]

Stories and oral histories of veteran soldiers collected by Elson, author of "A Mile in Their Shoes: Conversations With Veterans of World War II" (Maywood, NJ: Chi Chi Press, 1998) and the earlier "Tanks for the Memory: An Oral History of the 712th Tank Battalion from World War II" (Maywood, NJ: Chi Chi Press, 1994; also available in an online version).

Regarding Vietnam: Stories Since the War
PBS Online/POV (Point of View) Interactive

Using the strengths of the Internet to extend and expand a decades-long discussion, PBS Online and POV Interactive have created a new Web site for personal reflections on the impact of the Vietnam War era, as well as stories surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The site invites individuals to describe how the War and the Wall have changed their lives and shaped their perspectives. As the site grows, Web visitors will be able to navigate through personal materials, essays, poems, stories, photographs and even voice mail messages, as well as participate in on-going forums. (from [118] PBS PREVIEWS: November 11-17, 1996)

Cambodia: Beauty and Darkness - The Odyssey of the Khmer People [Bruce Sharp]

This site is designed to provide information on the recent history of Cambodia, particulary the Khmer Rouge period. This includes not only materials pertaining to Cambodia, but information relating to Cambodian refugees and immigrants abroad, as well.


Bibliographical Resources

Berkhofer, R. R. (1995). Beyond the great story: History as text and discourse. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. [D16 .B464 1995]

"[The author] addresses the essential practical concern of contemporary historians. Poststructuralism, the New Historicism, the New Anthropology, the New Philosophy of History--these and many other approaches are illuminated in new ways in these comprehensive, interdisciplinary explorations." --publisher's blurb

+Cronon, W. (1992). A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative. Journal of American History, 78, 1347-1376.

Iggers, G. G. (1997). Historiography in the twentieth century: From scientific objectivity to the postmodern challenge. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press. [D13.2 .I3413 1997]

This general review of historiography across this century includes three major sections: the final part, "History and the Challenge of Postmodernism," examines more contemporary narrative and other interpretive stances within this discipline across four chapters. This is an expanded English version of Geschichtswissenschaft im 20. Jahrhundert (1993).

McDonald, T. J. (Ed.). (1996). The historic turn in the human sciences. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

"In The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences eleven scholars widely known for their interdisciplinary work investigate one of the most striking developments in the intellectual world today: the return to history by a wide range of academic disciplines. From "new historicism" in literary theory, to "ethnohistory," to "historical sociology," these new approaches have resulted both in more works of historical analysis and in a more self-conscious attempt to locate the human sciences in their own histories. The essays in The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences---eight of them published here for the first time---take stock of these changes from the perspectives of some of the disciplines most deeply involved: anthropology, sociology, political science, law, literary studies, and history itself." (publisher's blurb)

Mink, L. O. (l969) History and fiction as modes of comprehension. New Literary History, l, 556-569.

Mink. L. O. (1987). Historical understanding (B. Fay, E. O. Golob, & R.T. Vann, Eds.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

+Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). History and narrative. Narrative knowing and the human sciences (pp. 37-69). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Stone, L. (1993). Broken lives: Separation and divorce in England, 1660-1857. New York: Oxford University Press.

In illustrating the legal and family experiences of marriage and its breakup before the 1857 Divorce Act, this third volume of Stone's history of separation and divorce in England employs 12 case studies to illustrate his theoretical points (see, also, Road to Divorce [1985] and Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England, 1660-1753 [1992]) .

+White, H. (1973). Metahistory: The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. [D13.W565]

White's principal work which applies rhetorical and narrative analytic tools (structuralism, Frey's literary modes, Burke's theory of rhetorical forms) to historical writing.

White, H. (1981). The value of narrtivity in the representation of reality. In W. J. T. Mitchell (Ed.), On narrative (pp. 1-23). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Influential lead essay which contrasts three forms of narrative in historical writing: "the annals, the chronicle, and this history proper" (p. 5)

White, H. (1989). The rhetoric of interpretation. In P. Hernadi (Ed.), The rhetoric of interpretation and the interpretation of rhetoric (pp. 1-22). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

+White, H. (1990). The content of the form: Narrative discourse and historical representation. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. (Original work published 1987) [D13 .W564 1990]

This important volume collects eight of White's essays dealing with narrative and historiography which were published between 1980 and 1985.


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When citing this document, you may wish to consider this form for the reference (derived from APA Style [5th ed.])

Hevern, V. W. (2003, February). History and historiography. Narrative psychology: Internet and resource guide. Retrieved [enter date] from the Le Moyne College Web site:

     Narrative Psychology: Internet and Resource Guide
is copyright © 1996-2003 by Vincent W. Hevern, SJ, all rights reserved.

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