Our Storied Land
North Dakota is going to hell in a handbasket. Or, it is finally coming into its own. Depends on who you ask. As if this were something new, or profound. Ours is a storied land, and the story-tellers are fighting it out for the last word. As if there ever was a last word.
Twenty years ago the historian William Cronon, himself a great story-teller, told a story about stories on the Great Plains of North America. He began with the elephant in the middle of the room: the Dust Bowl, and the stories that have been told about it.
Consider first the tale told by Paul Bonnifield, a railroad brakeman and cowboy and wild horse catcher with a PhD in History, in his book about the Dust Bowl. Paul likes his bourbon neat, and he loves his neighbors on the prairies. For him, the story of the Dust Bowl is one of prairie people hanging on in the face of a terrible drought, and at the same time, fending off the aggressive actions of a federal government that undermined their efforts.
Consider next the story told by Donald Worster, a historian whose palate bears the academic imprint of that silver spoon known as a Yale PhD. His template is essentially Marxist, his tale is tragic, and the problem is capitalism. Paul’s neighbors, he says, were dupes who got suckered into helping great capitalists destroy the land.
These two writers exemplify the two great, contrasting narrative traditions of the Great Plains. Stay with me here, because I’m about to impose some academic labels, but they make sense. The two great narrative traditions of the Great Plains are the progressive and the declensionist.
First you have to ignore how political parties have, over the years, hijacked the word progressive, and get back to its root, progress. Progressive story-tellers believe we are making progress and are headed toward a brighter future. Sure, there have been difficulties, droughts and plagues and depressions, but those are the things that build character. Enjoy the good times, hold on through the bad times, and have faith in the future.
The other story-telling tradition, the declensionist, is the progressive flipped 180 degrees. The declensionist narrative holds that human experience on the plains is tragic, and it’s getting more so all the time. In North Dakota, our resident declensionist was the University of North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson, with his famous doctrine of the too-much mistake. We must tighten our belts another notch every year, until we just disappear. Leaving no smile, but rather a grimace, hanging in the air.
Notice how neatly I have caricatured the two great story-telling traditions of the plains, so that both appear ridiculous? That’s what story-tellers do. They strip away the details that don’t fit, they suppress the evidence that contradicts, and they simplify the narrative for us. This is what the great historians do, and it is what the windbag on the barstool next to you does, too.
The narrative lines of the Great Plains are not geological features. Nor are they Holy Writ. We are the ones who write them into the land.
What if we went to work on a better story—you know, one where you don’t already know the end of it when you start reading? Will you tell it with me?