Narrative Environment

The narrative environment consists of the narratives that act upon us, but also the audiences we perceive and sense for the narratives that we create, both in words and by actions.



Narrative Environment: Two views of Virginia City, 1863

From “Better than myth” by Annick Smith, in The Last Best Place, Montana Historical Society, 1988, p. 260.

A real storyteller. . .speaks in a voice as individual and quirky and full of nuance as your own would be in your best dreams. Here, for instance, is Mary Ronan, remembering her girlhood in the gold-mining camp of Virginia City in 1863:

There were tall buttercups and blue flags in the valley. Up Alder Gulch snow and timber lilies bloomed, wild roses and syringa grew in sweet profusion and flowering current bushes invited canaries to alight and twitter. . .Robins, meadowlarks, bluebirds, blackbirds. . .bluejays, crows and magpies lured us from where men were ravishing the gulch.

And here’s what schoolteacher Thomas Dimsdale wrote in his famous Vigilantes of Montana about the same town in the same year. He is describing the events that led to the hanging of Captain J. A. Slade:

J. A. Slade was himself, we have been informed, a Vigilanter; he openly boasted of it, and said he knew all that they knew. . .He and a couple of his dependents might often be seen on one horse, galloping through the streets, shouting and yelling, firing revolvers, etc. On many occasions he would ride his horse into stores; break up bars, toss the scales out of doors, and use the most insulting language to parties present.

Can this be the same place? Which version is truest? What does “true” mean when you are talking about literature? And how has Mary Ronan’s experience altered our vision of gold camps and outlaws and vigilantes?

Beyond the voice of the storyteller, serious writing is about character and conflicts and the moral consequences of a person’s actions.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/20 at 06:14 AM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project


The death of heroes, the recovery of the heroic

David Hein:

. ..DEEPER FACTORS are also at work in the demise of the hero, The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has compared the post-Enlightenment West to the heroic societies of ancient times (repredented, for example, in the epic poems of Homer) and found them to be separated by fundamentally different understandings of the self and of moral conduct. Heroes, he believes, do no flourish outside of a network of relations in which personal identity is inseparable from one’s social role and in which such comcepts as honor, duty and shame are deeply meaningful. Other commentators have also pointed to our culture’s inhospitableness to heroes. Even more than the surrogate-hero Don Quixote, we find outselves tilting not at giants but at unromantic mechanical contraptions. Our age is much more ready to believe in the antihero than the hero, and to cast a wary eye on any soul addled by quixotic longings.

The death of the hero is further advanced bacause we recognize that Thomas Carlyle was seriously off the mark in believing that the history of the world is the history of great individuals like Moses, Muhammad, Cromwell and Catherifne the Great. History, we know, is shaped by forces far more complex, and we have learned to pay attention to the diverse contributions of workers, minorities and immigrants. They, their families and their communities used to be deemed inarticulate and irrelevant; they are now recognized as important actors in the historical drama. Moreover, an important trend in historical writing of recent decades has been the “personalization” of nonhuman entities. Historians look at the influence of large structures and processes--demography, ecology, economics, geography. While all sorts of history are still being written, there is a clear movement away from focusing on the great man and the big event. And these changes have affected education down to the earliest grades. No longer is the history of the nation represented to the young in terms of the exploits of its great individuals, as it was 50 years ago.

Finally, the demise of the hero can be seen as the inevitable result of a democratic society. Democratic heroes from the very beginning were different. Americans liked military victors if they acted like Cincinnatus and relinquished their military careers to return to civilian life. We suspected the strong man and loved the good loser, like Lee; we required our rulers to be subject to the will of the people. Sidney Hook aptly pointed out that if the hero is someone who changes the course of history, then it follows that a democratic community must be ever on guarf against such a person.

The contemporary observer could well be ambivalent about this whole phenomenon of the death of heroes.

. . .Religious-studies scholar Conrad Hyers has proposed replacing the perspective of “tragic heroism” with the outlook of “the comic hero” precisely because the latter view recognizes our fallenness and opposes all forms of dualistic thinking, and is thus much more congruent with Christian faith and the reality of the human condition. Tragic heroism, Hyers says, involves absolute dedication to causes and the clash of contending forces: good vs. evil, truth against error. It embraces the warrior virtues of courage, duty and honor. It is consonant with unquestioning obedience, the fight to the death, and kudos for the champion.

The comic vision, on the other hand, is intolerant of pride and pretension, of self-righteousness, of all finite claims to the infinite; it endorses humor, humility, child-likeness and the willingness to negotiate and settle differences. It is deeply suspicious of dividing the human family into the lowly and the lofty, the unrighteous and the righteous, the cowardly and the courageous. Its loyalty to the ultimate prompts the rejection of all human professions of goodness and claims to greatness as vanity, and enjoins acknowledgment of the dignity and worth each creature before God.

. . .We can acquiesce in the cultural process that has eventuated in the death of heroes. What we cannot accept is the loss of the heroic. The hero is an extraordinary being possessed of superior powers; the heroic is a potential attribute of ordinary men and women, as well as of children (as children learn from fairy tales). The heroic is consistent with democracy, the hero a possible threat. The hero has been honored with monuments everywhere; the shrine of the heoric is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The concept of the heroic bridges the gap between the tragic and the comic. It accepts the fragmentyary character of our knowledge, our virtue and our power (to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr), while holding fast to the old-fashioned “warrier virtues” of courage, honor and loyalty. It sees that, pace hyers, steadfastness may or may not mean a fight to the death, obedience need not be unquestioning, and the desire for kudos may be replaced by the will to act for others and for the glory of God. The traditional hero was chosen by fate or the gods to undertake a journey into the unknown; heroic thinking and doing is part of the vocation that God lays on us all as we venture unrehearsed into the terra incognita of our everyday lives.

THE “HEROIC” POINTS to certain positive features of flawed human beings who are in fact a mixture of virtues, vices and motives. The heroic vision accepts the fact that, as Plato makes clear in his Republic, the heroic by itself is not enough. England’s King Henry V and his “happy few” were heroic in their victory at Agincourt, but the point of their endeavor, the conquest of France, was less praiseworthy.

. . .Joseph Campbell has said that the hero of myth is a being who does what no one else can or will do. Today we must distinguish the heroic from the hero and say that the heroic is what all of us can and must undertake. The most important occasions of heroic striving lie pretty close to home: the efforts of the young to achieve independence and a sense of purpose, the commitment of responsible selves to marry and raise families, the work of parents in setting their children free and then in renewing their own lives. The Aztecs, who had a notion of multiple heavens, were wise to believe that women who died in childbirth went to the same heroic heaven as warriors who were killed in battle. The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers has rightly pointed out that while ethics courses tend to focus on big social questions like capital punishment, censorship and the policies of hospitals and corporations, students also need to think carefully about the virtues and vices of everyday life: compassion, self-respect, courage, honor, genorosity, jealousy, narcissism and self-deception.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/19 at 06:14 AM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project


Without moral clarity. . .

A friend of mine--a school superintendent in a small town--responded to a comment I’d made about the disunity and disorder that is making education difficult. How can we agree on what and how to teach when we can’t agree on what is wise and good in general? She said:

Those people who’ve been around, who have an understanding of the importance of the everyday civility and order, I think they gotten. . . I don’t know--sidetracked? Caught up in the business? I watch . . . the order keepers. They’re burned out. They’ve got the order but forget why they needed the order. . .

I told her I have a bit darker vision of what’s happening. Order is a different thing than organization, as Wendell Berry has noted. We can try to keep our worlds organized through committee meetings and rules and campaigns, but if people on the inside are quite different from one another then it takes more force than we are ready to use to keep them united.

When there is real social order--that is, when people are internally similar enough to each other, having compatible understandings of what is right and wrong and proper--only leadership is needed to allow a natural order to form. But when we really are diverse inside, so that what you think is good I think is wretched, it’s hard to keep the peace except through force. It’s easier to go our separate ways until events force us to deal with each other.

We have by now achieved quite a lot of diversity. Someone who thinks the important moral categories are diversity, authenticity, and choice is looking at the world quite differently from someone who thinks the important categories are truth, goodness, and duty.

A few years ago a different friend of mine, on the verge of leaving his wife for a few sun-drenched weeks with a different women on the beaches of Costa Rica, told me that the important moral decision was to be totally honest. “You’ve got to be totally, honest, man. That’s the whole thing. Totally f___ing honest!” His life turned into quite a mess because of selfish and myopic decisions he made, I thought. But they were his choices. He acted authentically. And he was candid about what he wanted.

I think he would have been happier if he had asked what was good and what duties he had to others.

We would be silly to expect much unity in a culture where so many have dedicated themselves to championing diversity, authenticity, and choice. All three are strategies for evading unity. All three lead to a world in which whatever the self asserts is good is good. All three dissolve any standard by which we might reconcile disagreements.

I expect truth, goodness, and duty to re-emerge as important categories, strengthened and clarified by having been put to the fire. I think this is likely to happen as the truly awful situation we are moving into becomes increasingly clear and the need for moral clarity comes to feel more urgent.

Right now, it’s hard for busy people to hear the real news. The enormity of 9-1-1 momentarily disrupted the buzz machines but it didn’t last long. Katrina was being spun before the winds even made landfall. But both these things are likely just previews of coming attractions. We meet trouble by endless internal chatterings--commissions and studies and committees--but no one has the authority to act, because we are too partisan to grant such authority. Winning an election no longer confers the right to govern, even for a fixed term. So we don’t act. We posture.

So we can expect trouble.

In some ways, The Lord of the Rings brings a more accurate and realistic description of our situation than the typical CNN newscast. There is a source of power in the world--call it a ring--that is sufficient to destroy the world. The challenge is how to ensure that the ring is controlled by goodness, because if it falls into the wrong hands all is lost.

For now, we will go on arguing about whether the ring is already in the wrong hands, or whether the concept of “wrong” is merely a cultural bias, or, more likely what’s playing on some other channel.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/10 at 10:29 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project
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