Microhistory

Several of you wanted to know more about my talk on “microhistory” during the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. My talk was part of a larger panel on the state of the field of early American history. Rick Pointer, the author of the recent Encounters in the Spirit , spoke about Indian history and the intersection between this field and American religious history. Tim Hall, the co-author (with T.H. Breen) of Colonial America in the Atlantic World spoke on “The Atlantic World.”

Since this was a roundtable, I did not prepare formal written comments, but I will try to summarize what I said here:

First, I became interested in microhistory only after I wrote The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This interest came about when one of the blind evaluators of the book called it a “microhistory.” Since then I have had others call it a microhistory as well. I found this interesting since I never set out to write what might be called a “microhistory.”

I talked a bit about the way microhistory has been gaining momentum in early American circles thanks largely to the initiatives of Richard D. Brown at the University of Connecticut. Brown has spearheaded an NEH seminar and an OIEAHC conference on microhistory and has produced, with his wife Irene Q. Brown, a microhistory of his own: The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America. Some of the following early American books have also been described as microhistories: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale; Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town; Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson, The Kingdom of Matthias; and John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive.

Most of my thoughts at the panel were informed by two important articles: Richard D. Brown’s presidential address at the Society for the History of the Early Republic (SHEAR) which was published in the Journal of the Early Republic in 2003 and Jill Lepore’s “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory,” Journal of American History (June 2001).

I was a bit surprised to find that my work had been described as microhistory since I had long assocated this genre of history writing with Italian historians who were reacting to the social science approach of the Annales school by focusing on small worlds or obscure individuals as a means of explaining larger concepts. (See Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms). I also associated microhistory with narrative history and the anthropological approach to history-writing inspired by Clifford Geertz’s idea of “thick description.” And finally, microhistories seem to concentrate on ordinary people who only become famous through the pen of the microhistorian.

While my book on Fithian does contain much “narrative history,” it also departs from the narrative at times to explain things about his larger social, cultural and religious world. And while I do try my hand at “thick description” as an approach to explaining Fithian’s agricultural world, the book is not very Geertzian in its analysis. Fithian was certainly an ordinary person, but he was also a Princeton graduate and a Presbyterian minister.

So is my book a microhistory? Lepore’ article is very helpful in sorting this out. For example, what is the difference between biography and microhistory? If the topic is a famous man or woman, does that mean that the project ceases to be a microhistory? Can you write a micrhistory of a significant event or does it have to be an obscure world or person otherwise unknown to the average history student? Brown, for example, suggests that David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride is a microhistory. Brown wonders how we distinguish between a “case study” and a microhistory, or between a “community study” and a microhistory? (Can we really call the Greven, Zuckerman, Demos, Lockridge “town studies” of the early 1970s “microhistory?”)

My talk then offered two reflections: First, it is interesting that early American historians are finding microhistory at the same time that they are celebrating the “Atlantic World” as a category of analysis. Indeed, Atlantic history can be a bit “macro” in nature. It often neglects the stories of how these broad changes may have affected individual lives. How did ordinary people engage with the Atlantic World and, as I argue in my book on Fithian, what did they lose in the process? It seems that as long as early American historians remain interested in the Atlantic World then microhistory will continue to flourish.

Second, I talked about Richard Brown’s suggestion that microhistory is more effective than synthesis at helping the historian find the truth of what happened in the past. Grand narratives leave too much out, but microhistorians are interested in the concrete details of everyday life and are thus more likely to be on surer footing in their quest to tell the truth. I though that Brown’s epistemological reflection on microhistory might resonate with the CFH audience.

Finally, I speculated a bit about how microhistories might (or might not) influence textbooks and the larger narratives we are forced to tell about the early American past. Can microhistory catch on in American studies, especially when much of American history today continues to serve a role in the civic education of school children? Microhistories do not lend themselves to national stories and ideals.

In the end, I prefer to describe The Way of Improvement Leads Home as a “biography of an ordinary New Jersey farmer” rather than as a microhistory, but I will not argue with those who want to label it this way.

One thought on “Microhistory

  1. Thanks for sharing these reflections. I had not thought of your book as a microhistory, but it gives me something to think about. It seems to me that microhistory can serve an important purpose in terms of explaining/comparing/contrasting the local in context of the regional, or even national. Sociological and ethnographic studies of the local can be interesting, and with a little historical perspective, even more powerful and persuasive.

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