The Stories that Define Us

During the War of 1812, British warships sailing into Chesapeake Bay were intercepted by a ferry boat manned by escaped American slaves. Having heard rumors that the King of England was in favor of emancipation, these “freedom fighters” boldly paddled down the Potomac to meet the invaders and offer their services. Eventually, around 400 runaways would be enlisted to aid in King George’s war against the United States. Their actions, motivated by stories, are part of history as told by UC Davis history professor Alan Taylor.

“We define ourselves by our stories, and they are shaped by others as we strive to tell and understand them,” said Taylor. Taylor’s words help explain his narrative approach to history that has earned him a second Pulitzer Prize for his new book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.

On June 5th, in a talk sponsored by the University Writing Program and the UC Davis Humanities Institute, the early American historian discussed his particular style of investigation, his books, and his writing process. Rather than foregrounding patterns of behavior, ideas, and institutions, his emphasis is on discovering how people operate within and against institutions. “Finding stories about ordinary people,” he says, “gives a broader understanding of those who shaped history.”

If the objective of historical study is to inform people and make the world a better place, his storytelling approach seems to reach a broader audience than other methods that barely make it out of the academy. While Taylor recognizes Hayden White’s warning about a “distorting coherence” in the narrative approach to history, he believes that placing a dichotomy between stories and behavior is artificial. Ultimately, he says, “the narration we live within shapes us and our stories.”

To what extent did reading about Daniel Boone as a boy and playing in the Puxton woods in Maine shape Taylor’s life and work? He wryly recounted such anecdotes as examples of how brief answers to interview questions can become sensationalized, but the irony remains. Telling others about ourselves is telling our story, one that includes, Taylor observes, past experiences, present decisions, and future plans.

In the case of the escaped slaves in the Chesapeake, the rumors they had heard about King George’s concern for them had little basis in fact. The British officers who received them, however, were so taken by their zeal (and utility), that they made the stories true by taking on the slaves as pilots, guides, and volunteer soldiers in a battalion called the Colonial Marines. According to Taylor, their assistance was instrumental in eventually taking Washington D.C. in August of 1814. “Stories,” as Taylor had proved to his audience, “don’t need to be true to be powerful.”