Narrative, Biography, and Hagiography: Reflections on Some Challenges in Microhistory

1810weemsthelifeofgeorgewashingtonShortly after the publication of Parlor Politics, Catherine Allgor was invited to reflect not only the political wives she’d written about, but also their husbands. Reflecting on John Quincy Adams, Allgor quipped “I like complicated men.”[1] While tongue-in-cheek, Allgor’s comment undoubtedly reflects why historians decide to study individuals. Unpacking the layers of “complicated men” (and women) can make for a fascinating project. But historians have also had a complicated relationship with biographies. No doubt this is because, like many narrative histories, some of the earliest Early American biographies were written as exercises in nationalism, and/or with hagiographic tendencies.[2] Moreover, when researching and writing on higher-profile individuals, many of the sources we encounter ourselves are of the narrative sort.

In 2012, the OIEAHC and the Early Modern Studies Institute held a workshop focused on the writing of biography. The program included many names that are no doubt familiar to most Early Americanists. Panels were small—one presenter, one to two respondents—enabling participants to closely interrogate the lives of historical individuals. Historians have been writing biographies for decades, but this workshop marked (as far as I know), one of the first sustained attentions to this type of microhistory. Even for professional historians, Jill Lepore rightly observed that “writing about people, living or dead, is tricky work.”[3] The process of research itself involves a rather intimate interrogation of sources, and a book project frequently involves years of research, writing, and revision. “Living with” a historical figure for that time means regular reassessment to insure that as a scholar, you are neither too close to, nor too removed from your subject. Lepore recalled sentiments felt while researching Noah Webster. “When I traded in that yellow call slip for that swirl of ginger hair I found myself feeling closer to Webster than I ever felt.” “Against all logic,” she continued, “I felt like I knew him.”[4]

As one who recently finished writing a book on George Whitefield, Lepore’s thoughts resonated with me. Unlike many of his pre-World War II followers, for whom handling his (and sometimes stealing!) remains was a ritualized part of communing with Whitefield, I was less intimately (and ideologically) connected with my subject.[5] I was also keenly aware that many narratives of Whitefield were written by memoirists, both an act of historical memory and an effort to preserve and protect Whitefield’s legacy, much as Parson Weems did for George Washington. For me, Whitefield’s journals and the memoirs provided a chronological structure that was convenient for the construction of my bigger discussion about the ways he, his followers, and his detractors shaped his public image. Yet, these narrative sources were frequently “tied up with some telos or end,” and “serve[d] as expression or conduit of ideolog[ies],” that were either pro- or anti-Whitefield. Writing a narrative of Whitefield’s career and its significance meant incorporating many voices. In the end, my book used Whitefield’s journals as the core organizational structure, with additional impressions of Whitefield by himself, his followers, and his detractors woven in. David Hackett Fischer’s “Braided Narrative” provided much useful guidance in navigating and interweaving the multiple voices and multiple changes in Whitefield’s career.[6]

Biography and narrative are undoubtedly tricky. Neither are historians necessarily free of their own likes or distastes for historical figures. Catherine Allgor acknowledged that she is a fan of Dolley Madison, the subject of her second book, though she also recognized Madison’s flaws.[7] Nonetheless, I think it is important to continue our interrogations of complicated men, and women, ever mindful of the potential pitfalls of narrative and hagiography.

______________

[1] Bella English, “Ladies First to Catherine Allgor, The Presidents’ Wives Helped to Build a Nation,” The Boston Globe, June 30, 2001.

[2] Especially relevant here are Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991); and Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993).

[3] Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (June 2001): 129.

[4] Ibid.

[5] And some might say less macabrely.

[6] David Hackett Fischer, “The Braided Narrative: Substance and Form in Social History,” in Angus S.J. Fletcher, The Literature of Fact (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 109-33.

[7] Mary Beth Norton, “One Cup of Tea at a Time,” The New York Times, May 14, 2006.

One comment on “Narrative, Biography, and Hagiography: Reflections on Some Challenges in Microhistory

  1. […] Sara Georgini explored the ways Henry Adams adapted medieval narrative strategies. Jessica Parr described using stories of George Whitefield’s life as a convenient, though dangerous, structure on […]

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