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.

Continue reading

Re-Writing the American Revolution: Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost

Kathleen Duval, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015).

9781400068951When most people think about the American Revolution and its cast of characters, names like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington spring to mind. On the British side, people might think of John André, Benedict Arnold, John Burgoyne, and, sometimes, Lord Dunmore. Though some of these people appear in Kathleen DuVal’s latest book, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, most of DuVal’s narrative centers around people who seldom feature in books or articles on the American Revolution. It is not the American Revolution that most people know. Indeed, “The American Revolution on the Gulf Coast,” DuVal writes, “is a story without minutemen, without founding fathers, without rebels. It reveals a different war with unexpected participants, forgotten outcomes, and surprising winners and losers.” Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

TWEAHHere in the United States, today is Memorial Day, a holiday originally created in the late 1860s to honor the Union Civil War dead, and now a time to commemorate all of America’s war dead.  Because it’s also observed as a three-day weekend, we’re bringing you a special Monday holiday edition of The Week in Early American History. On to your morning reading…

Continue reading

Serial, Microhistory, and the Perils of Historical Research

I’ve been listening to Serial again. Part of this is the spate of articles and interviews that attack (perhaps not persuasively) the foundations of Sarah Koenig’s research and reporting. Another reason is that, as someone in the midst of researching and writing a dissertation, I find Serial’s storytelling and depth of research very compelling and inspiring. At the same time, as a historian, the popular podcast has left me deeply troubled and uncomfortable with its final product. Continue reading

Historians Who Love Just a Bit

I’ve never met anybody, living or dead, who fits their name quite as well as Peregrine Foster did. I encountered Peregrine in the papers of his brother, Dwight Foster, at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where I was looking for compilations of meaty correspondence that depicted land speculators at work. Peregrine was the youngest of three; his older brothers were Congressmen from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Peregrine, though, wasn’t destined for such prominence.

In 1780, at the age of twenty-one, he more or less flunked out of the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (now Brown University), complaining that his homework was eating him. “Though it is but only 23 Days since he began the 1st Vol of Blackstone’s Commentaries,” his oldest brother wrote, “he lost Flesh surprizingly and . . . is persuaded that it is not for his Interest to pursue his Books.”[1] Peregrine wanted to go to sea, but his brothers disapproved. So instead, after a few years of twenty-something idleness, he resolved to venture west in pursuit of a fortune through land speculation. Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

TWEAHA DC-based company with the email address coolhistory13@gmail.com has posted an open casting call for a “history based reality TV show.” What could go wrong?

Do you work on disability studies? Early American Literature is running a special issue, and calling for contributions from “historians, literary critics, art historians, musicologists, and other early American scholars.” Continue reading