Past within the Plot: Two Narrative Historians and their Discontents
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameBachelor of Arts (Hons)
This dissertation examines the coexistence of 'narrative', popular history, which aims to tell a story to edify and entertain, with 'structural' history, which gained precedence in the university from the nineteenth century onward. Using the case studies of Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, popular historians who transitioned from early 'structural' works to 'narrative' books and finally documentary, the precise nature of narrative is examined through the theory of literary historical tropes developed by Hayden White, where a political perspective engages an 'emplotment' where a form of narrative develops. After examining how tropes apply to the life experience, ideology and resulting emplotment of Schama and Ferguson, it looks at the academic criticisms of their narratives, in text and television documentary - namely, that the organisation of data into a compelling story negates accuracy and objectivity in the name of entertainment. Subsequently, the similarity of Schama and Ferguson's narrative style is compared to pre-academic historical writings from before Leopold von Ranke. The final argument is that the popular history espoused by Schama and Ferguson is a re-emergence of the older, pre-academic style, based on narrative, which predates the structural history which displaced it. This dissertation concludes by examining how the two historiographies might coexist, arguing that the new narrative can offer excitement and purpose to the structural historian, giving relevance to the rigorous work of structural history.