Oct 12 2016

Why We Retell Stories

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Why We Retell Stories

The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil…. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.

–Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1]

I. The Place

Often while traveling down a road–one familiar though not taken weekly, or even monthly––I and members of my family have retold stories to ourselves. Indeed, as if unconsciously hypnotized by a mantra, we “sit indulgent” and “partake rural repast” by these retellings.[2] We partake in tales involving particular places along the way to wherever we’re going. Often they can’t even be categorized as stories, at least not in the sense of possessing a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they are but blots of memory and splotches of myth.

One of the stories that comes up while traveling in northern Williamson County, Texas along Highway 183 where it meets County Road 121 tells how in the early 1900s, my grandad’s grandad’s uncle Cyrus planted a tree. It was a tree that could be seen about a hundred yards away from the east side of the highway, and it was a tree that was seen for about hundred years until it fell over around 2010. It’s absurd that we know neither why he planted it nor what species eventually grew alone in a field on the edge of Shin Oak Ridge and Briggs Prairie, but because Cyrus’s older brother Livy operated nurseries and orchards throughout his life, I suppose it was some kind of fruit tree. The tree was always short, and the only explanation to which we could satisfy ourselves was that Uncle Cyrus perhaps planted it in soil rocky enough to stunt the tree’s growth.

But why did we repeat this vignette whenever we passed by the tree, or repeat it nowadays while driving past where it once stood? It’s because we seek stability while traveling and retell a tale to remind us so. Something in the subconscious says: “See that! Something happened there. Today I call attention to the place, and by telling you about it, that spot further becomes a part of me, and also now a part of you the listener.”[3] Just as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913), the mother of the main character, a New York transplant from the Midwest, resorts to retelling:

Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life.[4]

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II. The Placeless

On the other hand, I wonder which stories get told only once. I bet it’s those that are quite forgettable. I further wonder: do the stories that get told only once evoke in their readers and listeners a sense of placelessness?—perhaps even a sense of instability? Are some stories too unstable to be retold? Perhaps that speculation works for stories, perhaps not, but on the other hand a poem can certainly evoke placelessness and at the same time be good enough to qualify as unforgettable. Consider the twenty-eighth sonnet of Shakespeare, where readers encounter a wanderer who asks:

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

The speaker wishes without hope––an individual stuck between twinkling night and radiant morn.

Or is the speaker free rather than trapped? Has the poet captured the psychology of one coursing through a place of non-existence just as the clouds course through the air? While the speaker tells the day and flatters the night, unlike Mrs. Spragg, this particular poet doesn’t retell a tale in an attempt to craft a place of permanence. Is this because Shakespeare wasn’t an American?

We should seek to discover how, given the American people as they are, and American economic and social life as it now exists—and not as those things can be imagined to be—we can find means of resisting the steady homogenization of the world. This means cultivating a strong sense of place wherever we find it—and thereby cultivating the human goods that depend upon an enduring sense of place and are impossible without it.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. “The Custom-House.”

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 3–4.

[3] Compare Job 38:4–7: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….”

[4] Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909. I, vi, p. 79.

[5] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 7.