TSoA: Details, Schmetails

Our friend Elia Peattie had to make some difficult choices when writing The Story of America. Covering 400 years of American history for a young adult audience meant that she couldn’t possibly include every bit of detail, so she had to decide — like all storytellers must — what information the reader needed to follow and understand the narrative.  Here are some of the things that made the cut in the chapter “Founding the Old Dominion,” about the origins of Jamestown:

  • John Smith was “most disagreeable,” and had been thrown in the stockade while the London Company took the “old route of the West Indies, stopping along the by the way in the pleasant towns of the Spaniards, and wasting both time and food” (63).
  • While wading a creek, Smith was stung by a poisonous fish that nearly took his life; his comrades even dug a grave for him (66).
  • Powhatan was “very stalwart and well-shaped of limb, and with a sad countenance and thin grey hair” (66)

Meanwhile, things like the economic motivation for Jamestown don’t get much attention.  And while that would certainly raise eyebrows in a comprehensive exam, I think Peattie was on to something in terms of narrative and, by extension, analysis.  Peattie included (concocted?) details that she thought revealed something about the character and personality of the historical actors in her narrative.  John Smith was an asshole, argues Peattie, but that asshole-ish-ness also made him just the right person to pull Jamestown through until England sent more money.  I don’t buy the argument, of course; as I’ve noted earlier, I don’t go in for history-made-by-individuals.  But I agree with Peattie’s method: include details that are both interesting and integral for your argument.  Make your narrative your analysis and your analysis your narrative.

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