Friday, May 10, 2019

Narrative as a Mode of Argument

The most practical course I took in grad school was Writing History with Marni Sandweiss, where I learned how to use narrative as a mode of argument. Historians already do this when they decide which characters to follow, how to frame conflict, and when and where to begin and end their story. What was especially helpful for me was learning how to use organization—the unfolding of a story—to make an argument.

One good example is Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay, “Offensive Play.” It’s a braided narrative of two different stories, one about football and the other about dogfighting. Gladwell never explicitly claims that the injuries sustained by football players are an inherent part of the game and, thus, that the sport is fundamentally immoral. Instead, he raises the question and to answer it, he weaves in sections about dogfighting. Readers, of course, come to the very conclusion that Gladwell wants them to reach, transferring their reactions in one context to the other. But the effect is much more powerful than it would have been if Gladwell had pontificated directly on the ethics of dangerous sports.

I thought about narrative organization often, especially when writing about the history of traffic. My challenge was twofold. First, how could I make an ostensibly boring topic like traffic interesting? Given our familiarity with cars and traffic today, how could I capture the sense of bewilderment at the traffic problem in the early twentieth century? Simply declaring that traffic was a big problem that interested many important people in the early years of the automobile didn’t seem to work. The second challenge was directly connected to the argument I wanted to make. How could I convey that the traffic problem was so serious, overwhelming, and massive that American society built an entirely new mode of governance? How could I relate to contemporary readers that the solution, which is taken as a given today, was not assumed a century ago?

To figure out how to create historical suspense, I went back to Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. Incidentally, this book offers another compelling example of a braided narrative, interlacing the stories of Daniel Burnham, the mastermind of the 1893 World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, a mastermind serial killer, to portray both the potential and pathos of modernity.

Another one of Larson’s narrative techniques is to hold back certain details until the right moment in order to give readers the same perspective as the historical actors. Consider the following example [spoiler alert]. Early in the book, Larson introduces one of the conflicts in the plot: Burnham desperately desired a structure to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” to showcase the greatness of American architecture and engineering. There was a competition. Several entries proposed a tower even taller than the one at the Paris Exposition, but Burnham deemed towers unoriginal. Two chapters later, we read about a 33-year-old engineer from Pittsburgh with a flash of insight. Pages later, we learn that his idea “embodied little ‘dead load,’ the static weight of immobile masses of brick and steel. Nearly all of it was ‘live load,’ meaning weight that changes over time, as when a train passages over a bridge.” [What is this? I wondered.] This proposal was accepted and then, on second thought, revoked because it was deemed un-buildable.

Finally, the resolution, on page 185: The engineer refined his plans. The structure would be a “vertically revolving wheel” carrying “thirty-six cars, each about the size of a Pullman, each holding sixty people and equipped with its own lunch counter” and “when filled to capacity the wheel would propel 2,160 people at a time three hundred feet into the sky over Jackson Park, a bit higher than the crown of the now six-year-old Statue of Liberty.” I still didn’t get it until the last sentence of the chapter, which finally revealed the name of the engineer from Pittsburgh, George Washington Gale Ferris. What stayed with me from this narrative is the ambition behind a now common feature of state fairs and amusement parks.

In Policing the Open Road, I juxtaposed stories and played with the organization of chapters, sections, paragraphs, and even sentences. I made this effort not just to engage readers, but also to advance the argument. But there are tradeoffs. When a writer avoids direct, declarative expressions of argument (the “I argue that…”), there is the possibility that readers might miss the point. When writing and editing, I constantly asked myself whether I was asking the reader to do too much. Would a reader feel drawn in or wonder if I was hiding the ball? To be sure, there were places where I had to lay out my argument. But the wonderful thing about writing a book is the freedom to experiment with narrative.

Sarah Seo

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