Manhattan sparkled in the crisp October night. Two large bonfires on the Common, thousands of candlelit windows, and a sea of ships' lanterns, like autumn fireflies, lit the tiny city and its harbor. Four weeks earlier, Major-General James Wolfe's British regulars had defeated a force under the marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec, the key to French control of Canada and the interior of North America. When news reached New York City, Lieutenant-Governor James DeLancey declared Friday, October 12, 1759, a day of public thanksgiving.This book, for its two hundred twenty-odd pages of text, has fifty pages of footnotes. And they're not slim, lazy footnotes either: they show the signs of massive trans-Atlantic research, covering an extensive variety of works on colonial New York (a field in which one rarely sees more than one noteworthy monograph every couple of years). Even Julius Goebel and Raymond T. Naughton's massive Legal Procedure in Colonial New York is cited in detail. All this is neither surprising nor unusual in a scholarly monograph; what is surprising is that this is a work of what is called--usually with a sneer--"narrative history."
Church bells across the city proclaimed the British victory. With colors flying, merchant ships and privateers on the East River answered the cannons of Fort George. Evening brought the illumination of the city and a flood of toasts: To His Majesty's health, To the might of British arms, To the heroes of Quebec, To final victory. The drawing rooms, coffeehouses, taverns, and streets of the city filled with joyous New Yorkers celebrating the greatest achievement of British arms in North America.
- Thomas M. Truxes, Defying Empire: Trading With the Enemy in Colonial New York (2008)
And indeed, the narrative here is well-structured, with character-driven momentum and verve. What's more, it follows on the heels of Jill Lepore's New York Burning, a remarkable book that is only slightly more coy about its fundamental narrative quality. This is disorienting. Previous narrative histories have run more in the vein of Peter Decker's 1964 Brink of Revolution, a paint-by-numbers account of how the nice Continental Congress got the nasty British to repeal their naughty Stamp Act. Such books--and their feel-good early '90s multicultural brethren--have by and large been conspicuously ignored by historians. Narrative is all well and good, the critique runs, but it encourages historical impressionism and conceals the conflicts behind the familiar watershed events. For real historians, analysis must take priority.
It would no doubt be premature to declare a revival in narrative history on the basis of Truxes and Lepore's books. But it is clear that they represent a break in the consensus. Both are sophisticated academic historians who could easily have written high-quality traditional monographs if they so chose. Their books are not the regurgitated Stephen Ambrose pap that passes for mid-eighteenth-century American history on the mass market--and yet they can appeal to a broad (albeit New Yorker-reading) audience. Their reconstructions of the New York of the period will undoubtedly also be useful for any future "analytic" historical work.
In a way, it is possible to look at this as a return to the historian's proper métier. We are, after all, by vocation storytellers and not Rankean robots. We talk so much about narratives and metanarratives and grand narratives that it is sometimes easy to forget what kinds of stories we might want to be telling. With all our excavations and demystifications, we may finally have arrived at the point where we are ready to tell some new stories--ones that we have, however incompletely, decontaminated of legend and stereotype. Even this manner of phrasing betrays a certain naivety, it's true: the "contamination" metaphor is hopelessly inadequate. But I can't deny that I am happier to read through the nuanced and wide-ranging story of Defying Empire than the narrative histories I have sneered at before. History is realizing its Herodotian ambition--becoming interesting.