We like to think that the more balanced view of events is possible the more "distant" we get from those events. The heat of the political moment will fade; the principal actors will eventually leave the discussion to others; and our current assumptions and preconceptions about recent events will pass out of memory where they can no longer influence sound analysis or judgement.
This is the common wisdom, but the pattern does not fit situations where events have been firmly cast into popular storylines. Civil War scholarship is one area that has suffered terribly because of the popularity of storytelling; and specifically by the wild success of two competing narrative templates, the Lost Cause storyline (catering to a Southern audience) and the Republican Party storyline (catering to unionists and Lincoln fans).
The Lost Cause template was developed after the war by friends and admirers of Robert E. Lee. It triumphed over some lesser, less developed strands; what might be called the "blundering Rebel oaf" theme of the Richmond Examiner and certain public figures; and also over the "Davis Cabal" theme developed by Johnston, Beauregard, many Southern newspapers and politicians.
The way we think about the Union conduct of the war is simply a direct lift from the mainstream Republican newspapers of the 1860s. There is very little deviation today from 140-year old newspaper editorials lines, a surprise given the rivers of information that have been undammed since then. In this Republican "master narrative," the Unionist Democrat view has been utterly lost; so has that of those Lincoln-hating Radical Republicans, never mind the peace Democrat.
A fine way to get your arms around the problem of master narratives is to visit Andrew Cline's Rhetorica site, a blog devoted to the analysis of political rhetoric, and read his essay "Writing the Plot." He is dealing with political material, but the dynamic is the same. The communicator is attempting to structure your interpretation of events by selling you a template into which to organize your future experiences. Let's try some of his ideas:
"I want to consider how master narratives are constructed. A master narrative, in this context, is a set characterization of a candidate that leads to a set plot line in the "story" of that candidate's campaign."
Substitute "historical figure" for "candidate" and off we go.
"Master narratives have many sources. Most of these set characterizations spring from the candidates themselves as normal image control. Sometimes, circumstances of a campaign create such narratives. And the press has been known to create them, too."
"No matter the source, a master narrative is generally constructed this way:
1- A pattern of behavior is noticed.
2- The behavior is characterized, i.e. given a name.
3- The character is portrayed as part of a plot, i.e. a set course of actions, consistent with the character, beginning with a central tension and leading to a climax and denouement.
4- The candidates words and actions are analyzed by comparing them to the character and the plot."
Cline says in another article "each candidate is framed by a story of their candidacy. These stories may be positive or negative depending upon how the press interprets each candidate's actions." Also, "Frontrunners emerge based on the level of viability created for each. The press creates viability by constructing distinct master narratives."
So the narrative defines the general or politician. Grant is the fighting general who undergoes trials before he is discovered and rewarded; McClellan is the "captain who would not dare" on whose removal the safety of the cause depends; Lincoln is the struggling, non-partisan executive seeking the best outcome to a worst situation.
It goes farther: generals are either like Grant or McClellan. Politicians are either like Lincoln or his "partisan" opponents. Cline: "Master narratives are human dramas, not policy dramas." Nor are they history. They are simply a kind of literature.
In a future post, I will look at Bruce Catton's storytelling elements and how they threaded together various editorial lines adopted by Republican newspapers and authors of the Civil War era.