Guest Post: Elizabeth Seton and Me: Or, How I Almost Wrote a Book about a Saint Without Mentioning God

Today’s guest post is authored by Catherine O’Donnell. Her book, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint was published this month by Cornell University Press. She is also the author of Men of Letters in the Early Republic (UNC Press, 2008) and is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

When I arrived at the archive in Emmitsburg, Maryland, my heart sank. My subject was Elizabeth Seton, woman of the early American republic and saint in the Roman Catholic Church, and the archives to which I’d traveled are held on the grounds of her shrine. In order to be at the archives first thing Monday, I’d arrived on a Sunday and decided to see what was happening nearby. The building adjacent to the archives is a minor basilica, so what was happening was Mass. When a guide asked whether I’d visited the Altar of Relics, I winced. I felt oddly guilty about bring my historian’s purposes and questions into this reverent world. I also knew that biographers pride themselves on not writing hagiographies, and that many academic historians pride themselves on not being biographers at all. I felt I was blaspheming both a faith and a profession. Continue reading

An Interview with Ann Little

ann-littleToday at The Junto we’re featuring an interview with Ann Little, an Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University, about her new biography, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. Little has previously authored Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England. She also writes regularly at her blog, Historiann: History and Sexual Politics, 1492 to Present.

In The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, Little chronicles the life of a New England girl, Esther Wheelwright, who was captured by the Wabanakis in 1703 when she was seven years old. After living with the Wabenakis for several years, Wheelwright entered an Ursuline convent in Quebec at age twelve. She lived the remainder of her life there, voluntarily becoming a nun and taking on several leadership positions in the convent, including that of Mother Superior, during old age. Continue reading

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

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.

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History & Story

1134henryadamsOnce or twice upon a chapter, as you work to tell history as story, take comfort in knowing that even American sage Henry Adams sometimes had a not-great writing day. By 1878, the 40-year-old Harvard professor of medieval history was a polished scholar. Hailing from a family that wrote for the archive, he navigated easily the uncatalogued byways of an early Library of Congress. He swept up obscure state records and gathered local maps for his 9-volume History of the United States. As editor of the North American Review, Henry instructed freelancers to write “in bald style.” He sliced his private letters down to acid cultural commentary that, to the modern reader, feels meta-enough to border on code. Continue reading

The New Old Revolutionaries

It’s often said that we tell old stories to get new ones, a truth self-evident in my favorite of Pauline Maier’s many works, The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980). And everything I admire about her as a scholar rolls in with the first lines of that barefaced preface: “Let me confess at the outset that this book, though it answers some questions of the sort historians are trained to ask, has also been—and was meant from the outset to be—a personal adventure. I wanted to know better what it was to be an American of the late eighteenth century and to live through the American Revolution” (xiii). Maier’s prosopography of five men and their “worlds,” accentuated by a thoughtful “interlude” on the rigors of political life in the colonies, marked a change in how historians used individual biographies to retell the Revolution to post-bicentennial Americans. First given as a series of lectures at New York University in 1976, the essays gather a fairly random matrix of people for a group shot of colonial life: Samuel Adams, Isaac Sears, Dr. Thomas Young, Richard Henry Lee, and Charles Carroll. Few had appeared in solo biographies, and if they did, it was often in fairly dim light. In fewer than 300 pages, Maier promised to deliver the story of “not just why Americans made the Revolution, but what the Revolution did to them.” How to get at it? Continue reading

Seeing Dead People: Biography in the Survey

Robert Cornelius, Phila., 1839. Possibly the first American photo portrait.This fall, I’m teaching a freshman U.S. history survey with a couple of unusual requirements. First, my class covers American history, from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, in a single frenzied semester. Second, and also by school policy, all the readings in the course must be biographical. Continue reading

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