I wrote this rhetorical analysis for Dr. Strain’s Rhetorical Theory class at the University of Dayton. At the time I taught a class where I assigned a rhetorical analysis of this Stephen Jay Gould essay. It seemed only right to give myself the same assignment. While my students were doing the traditional Aristotelian analyses, I used Gould’s essay as a counter-example to the scholarship of Hayden White. White’s contention that history functions as a narrative is certainly interesting, but I think that only works when we look at the histories of people, dynasties, or other focal points that lend themselves to narratives. Could you tell a narrative about the history of the spoon? Maybe, but it probably wouldn’t have a narrative arc.
I could just as easily challenge White using the example of biopics contrasted with biographies. Although biographers try their hardest to frame the lives of their subjects as narratives, most lives are too messy to fit neatly within that framework. Thus biographies are often light on narrative and heavy on exposition. Biopics, on the other hand, will prioritize narrative at all costs, and will readily discard completeness or accuracy for the sake of the narrative. White makes a great point about our desire to frame histories as narratives, and he’s definitely correct in stating this happens, but he’s wrong to assert that it’s universal.
In “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Hayden White argues that a historian functions as a creator of fictive narratives. According to White, what distinguishes a history from a chronicle is its narrative quality. In this way, histories transcend chronicles and “gain part of their explanatory effect by their success in making stories out of mere chronicles” (83). This act of “emplotment” (83) is bound to the historian’s cultural traditions of storytelling and interpretation of historical events, meaning that the historian selects a genre in which to frame a series of historical events to imbue them with meaning (84). Thus White differentiates knowledge from understanding; the former expands as more artifacts from the past are unearthed and investigated while the latter is generated by the fictive process of the historian (89). Unlike science, there are no “revolutionary breakthroughs” that expand “our understanding of the past” (89). History can be further distinguished from science “by virtue of its want of conceptual rigor and failure to produce the kinds of universal laws that the sciences characteristically seek to produce” (89). While Hayden White issues a theoretically strong argument, Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown” provides an exercise in challenging White’s premises. As a paleontologist, Gould is the scientific equivalent to a historian, excavating the bones of long extinct creatures and synthesizing that knowledge into an understanding of the history of life. In “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” however, he plays the role of a traditional historian as he examines the origins of America’s pastime, baseball. Gould avoids the limitations of White’s narrativity by deconstructing the traditional historical narrative to reveal understanding without constructing a fictive structure.
Like White, Gould also examines the narrative aspect of histories, but he specifically focusses on origin stories. He begins the essay with a narrative about the Cardiff Giant, a poor attempt by a cigar manufacturer to cash in on the public’s wonder regarding human origins by forging a prehistoric man out of gypsum (42-44). George Hull, the man who devised the hoax, staged a well publicized excavation and then charged fifty cents to view the supposedly fossilized man (42-44). This lasted for a few months until the Cardiff Giant was uncovered as a sham, but by then Hull had sold three quarters of his interest in the scheme (42-44). The Cardiff Giant today resides in the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York (44).
The other and more important creation myth of Cooperstown is the story of how Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 (46). Gould presents convincing historical documentation to demonstrate that Doubleday “most emphatically did not invent baseball” (46). Gould contends that “no one invented baseball at any moment or in any spot” (46). While this conclusion may seem obvious to anyone willing to do a minimal amount of research on the subject, the creation myth remains the official story according to the Baseball Hall of Fame (52). Likewise, even after the Cardiff Giant was exposed as a fraud, enough people continued paying to view it for P.T. Barnum to construct a rival (45). Gould argues that “we readily construct myths when we do not have data (or we suppress data in favor of legend when a truth strikes us as too commonplace)” (45), a sentiment that seemingly echoes White’s position regarding the historian’s role as storyteller. But unlike White, Gould asserts a positivist notion that, like a prospector panning for gold, one can sift out nuggets of understanding from the silt of raw facts.
LAYERS OF NARRATIVES
There are a few key features that make Gould’s essay unique compared to traditional historical narratives such as the ones White examines. First, Gould does not confine his narrative to a particular time in history. Unlike the traditional historian, who must choose a beginning and end point for his narrative (White 90), Gould denies these restrictions. He does this by creating a layer of narratives that are connected by a thematic relationship rather than an era, geography, culture, or any other traditional historical locus (Cooperstown, as a geographical commonality, presents a nod to this convention without fully embracing it). The thematic relationship Gould chooses investigates a universal rather than a particular truth. In other words, Gould’s story seeks to transcend the mere historical fact not by creating a generic frame, as White would contend, but by viewing historical facts as a scientist views data.
Despite the fact that the overall presentation of Gould’s essay has the effect of fracturing White’s narrative structure, the individual narratives contained therein do not. For instance, Gould presents the prefatory story of the Cardiff Giant as a traditional comedy, with the bumbling George Hull and the gullible public acting as the deviant commoners in want of a corrective lesson (42-46). Gould tells a narrative of his own visit to Cooperstown in the mode of a majestical romance, as he played the role of hero in his own adventure (46-47). He also tells the romantic tale of baseball’s mythical creation, with Abner Doubleday “[interrupting] a game of marbles behind the tailor’s shop” to arrange the first game of baseball (48-49). This romance, however, is merely a small portion of a greater ironic tale detailing A. G. Spalding’s creation of the myth through his “blue ribbon committee to investigate and resolve the origin of baseball” (48). It is later revealed that Spalding only concludes the commission with the Doubleday myth to resolve a farcical bet (51). Then there is also the true story of Abner Doubleday and why he made such a useful hero for the baseball creation myth, itself a sort of romance as Doubleday functioned as a national hero in the Civil War (51-52).
The most important history, however, is the true origin of baseball and Gould has no narrative in which to frame it. In fact, this lack of a coherent narrative for the truth is the entire point of the essay. When Gould transitions to the true history of baseball, his prose likewise transitions from the narrative to the expository (52-57). He presents various facts that historians have dug up, such as details of various English “stick-and-ball” (54) games that likely functioned as precursors to baseball. But Gould cannot frame the history of baseball as a narrative because it exists as a continuum, and such stories of evolution lack “definable points of origin” (57). Gould emphasizes the evolutionary nature of baseball throughout the essay, asserting that “no one invented baseball at any moment or in any spot” (46). The objective of telling the story of baseball’s creation isn’t just impeded by the lack of historical records regarding the early days of stick-and-ball games, it’s made impossible by the nature of baseball as an evolutionary creation.
It becomes clear by the end of the essay that although the exposition regarding the origins of baseball cannot be fit into a conventional narrative, by contrasting it to conventional creation myths Gould creates an allegory for biological evolution. This allegory becomes explicit at one point, as Gould notes that “[s]cientists often lament that so few people understand Darwin and the principles of biological evolution” because “[t]oo few people are comfortable with evolutionary explanation in any form” (57). This is reflected in the Hall of Fame’s description of Doubleday in their exhibit, which states: “In the hearts of those who love baseball, he is remembered as the lad in the pasture where the game was invented. Only cynics would need to know more” (Gould 52). Even when evolutionary explanations clearly demonstrate their advantage over creation myths, many people will choose to believe the creation myth for sentimental rather than logical reasons.
Despite Gould’s insistence that baseball ought to be accepted as having an evolutionary origin rather than a creation origin, he does demonstrate sympathies for creation myths. For example, when he mentions having held the bones of Piltdown Man—a hoax analogous to the Cardiff Giant—he felt that he “was handling an important item of Western culture” (42). After reciting the Hall of Fame’s denunciation of those who would doubt the Doubleday myth, Gould states, “[o]nly in the hearts; not in the minds” (52). Nevertheless, Gould emphasizes one’s duty to be intellectually honest, even if it conflicts with the heart. Furthermore, he concludes the essay by arguing that evolutionary explanations provide more emotional satisfaction than creation myths because creation myths “[extinguish] both thought and wonder” (58).
This positivist way of constructing history may not appeal to White, who argues quite the opposite when he says that in attempting to appear “scientific and objective, [history] has repressed and denied to itself its own greatest source of strength and renewal” (99). Gould demonstrates that by breaking the traditional narrative mold of history, one can in fact write histories that present universal truths and move beyond the limitations narrative modes entail. For Gould, the narrative functions as a tool in a larger exposition. In this way, “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown” reminds me of another scientific view of history, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. Diamond, an anthropologist, investigates the history of human civilizations and similarly alternates between narrative and exposition, between different chronologies, and different locations. Both of these works demonstrates that, although the narrative might be a necessary part of writing histories, that does not necessitate that the history itself functions as a single narrative.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Gould, Stephen Jay. “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown.” Bully for Brontosaurus, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991, pp. 42-58.
White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. John Hopkins University Press, 1978.