Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 4, Fall 2008, pp. 321-24.
Whither the grand narrative in historical scholarship? For years, critics have cautioned us that narratives are, in Hayden White's words, little more than a form of "emplotment" whose order and coherence oversimplify the inherent messiness of the past. Yet the inconvenient fact remains that human beings are unparalleled storytelling creatures. Whether or not events occur in a narrative format, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, we tend to perceive them in this way-and to relate them in this structure to one another.
Still, not all narratives are created equal. In keeping with the postmodern turn, historians have been increasingly drawn of late to quirky, eccentric tales, rendered more often than not as microhistories or in other, novel genres. Such stories find their value less in their typicality than in their atypicality and their ensuing ability to disrupt conventional interpretations of the past.
Far rarer-and more suspect-is the attempt to craft a master narrative that presents an authoritative overview of a subject or time period. Nevertheless, there remain those scholars bold enough to propose the broad, sweeping master narrative. Western history seems particularly prone to this impulse. After all, what was Frederick Jackson Turner if not the author of perhaps the most successful master narrative in all of American history? Even the "New Western History," despite its sharp critique of Turner, remained wedded to the master narrative ideal, merely situating conquest or aridity or markets as the great new story of the West. In the decades since the bold statements of Patty Limerick's Legacy of Conquest (1987) and Richard White's "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own" (1991), however, few have taken up the challenge of trying to craft a new Western history master narrative. The recent arrival of two ambitious works doing precisely that by senior scholars of the West therefore marks an important moment, one that allows us to revisit once again the question of narrative and Western history.