Making the Personal Historical: Reflections on Pregnancy and Birth

Lady and Children

“A Lady & Children,” 1780 mezzotint, the British Museum.

Human reproduction is simultaneously unchanged and radically different over time and across cultures. This paradox has preoccupied me for over a year as I carried and gave birth to my first child one year ago today, and as I watched my sister follow the same path soon after. Throughout my pregnancy, delivery, and now early motherhood, I’ve found myself thinking often long-dead women and pondering how vastly different our experiences of the same condition must be.

Pregnancy and birth generate intense  feelings. Most parents experience joy, hope, and fear. As a historian, I regularly identify with the women I encounter in the archive. The empathy born of our shared biological and emotional experiences generated two additional emotions that most new parents may not: gratitude, on the one hand, and anger on the other. Continue reading

Puritan Family Ties

puritan-family-edmund-sears-morgan-paperback-cover-artFamily pictures can be the hardest to frame, and Puritans make for appealingly restless subjects. In tackling the early American narrative, scholars must confront the thorny task of portraying the Puritan family with equal parts theological dexterity and sociological skill, a problem that seventeenth-century artists and modern historians alike have sought to refine. Scholars who take on the Puritans must address sin, salvation, and community-building in a way that does not make American democracy feel inevitable; further, they must seize onto the seventeenth-century peculiarities of transatlantic intellectual life in which the Puritans flourished and fell. Wrapped in New England lore and either exalted or disowned by their descendants, the cultural memory of Puritan contributions to the project of nation-building has inspired a broad spectrum of historiographical views. In the early 1940s, then-Harvard doctoral student Edmund S. Morgan and his colleagues would have encountered a popular narrative of Puritanism, one seemingly destined to smother any effort at new work: America’s Puritan “tribe” had briefly inhabited a tau(gh)t sphere, bounded by covenant theology and laden with impossible ethics, peopled by censorious prudes who excelled at capitalist rhetoric and balked at the sinful frivolity of a stray dance. Or… did they? Continue reading

New William and Mary Quarterly Special Issue: Centering Families in Atlantic History

wmq-cover1I planned on doing another “Articles of Note” post for today since it’s been a few months since the last one, and lots of new articles are indeed noteworthy, but I’m feeling lazy today. Plus, as a more legitimate excuse, the William and Mary Quarterly just put out an issue that is worth highlighting by itself. What originated as a conference sponsored by the OIEAHC and the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, “Centering Families in Atlantic History” addresses an important (and often neglected) issue in the vibrant, popular, yet often uneven field of study based around the Atlantic Ocean. In brief, two of the lessons that stood out the most to me were 1) the importance of family connectedness within an era usually dominated by an emphasis on empires and states, and 2) the much-needed diversification that encompasses much more than just Anglo-America (perhaps the biggest problem with the “Atlantic History” field.)

If you or your institution have a subscription to JSTOR, you can download the entire issue here. Hopefully we can have a more in-depth and substative review of some or all of the excellent articles in this issue, but for the time being I’ll just post the titles and abstracts here. Continue reading