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Historians To Debate Value
of New Historical Approach
October 11, 1999
Do isolated records about obscure people and unusual occurrences offer reliable insights into common historical experience? What can "small" events, "little" lives, and individual circumstances really tell us about the broader social forces and cultural patterns that shape history?
Such questions will bring together two Pulitzer Prize-winners and other leading historians of early America for a conference on the burgeoning field of microhistory, to be held at UConn Friday through Sunday, October 15-17.
"Microhistory: Advantages and Limitations for the Study of Early American History" will explore the ways in which this relatively new approach to historical analysis has amplified and, some have argued, inappropriately skewed, our understanding of early American history.
Participants include Pulitzer Prize-winners Laurel Ulrich and Alan Taylor, John Murrin of Princeton University, John Demos of Yale, Alfred Young of the Newberry Library, Jay Fliegelman of Stanford University, David D. Hall of the Harvard Divinity School, and the conference organizer, Richard Brown of UConn.
In eight sessions, participants will present 19 microhistorical studies whose subjects range from how early embroidery patterns reflect the African diaspora in the New World, to women's reading in the Hudson Valley after the American Revolution, to relations between Indians and an English missionary on Martha's Vineyard in the 1660s.
Microhistory emphasizes the intensive study of particular - though often ordinary - lives, single, tough, often isolated places, and extraordinary - though often historically "insignificant" - events.
"It is much like the poet William Blake's injunction to see a world in a grain of sand," says Ronald L. Hoffman, director of the Omohundro Institute of early American History and Culture, which is co-sponsoring the conference with UConn.
"Microhistory scrutinizes isolated topics to come to grips with the larger universe of historical circumstances and transformations. It is specially useful, perhaps, for gaining insight into the experiences of the under-recorded subjects of our history, those who have left little traces from which much, perhaps, can be gleaned."
Among the important microhistorical studies of recent years are Laurel Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis of the Maine midwife Martha Ballard's diary, a Midwives Tale; Alan Taylor's study of the Cooper family in frontier New York, William Cooper's Town, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize; and Jill Lepore's study of 17th-century New England's King Philip's War, The Name of War.
Proponents of the approach, such as Hoffman, say microhistorical studies provide a prism through which one can glimpse the fundamental experiences and mentalities of ordinary people that broad analyses of nations so often miss. Detractors say microhistory directs attention toward a small detail at the expense of big and important historical questions.
A distinctive feature of the conference, believed to be the first American historical conference fully devoted to microhistory, are 13 scheduled workshops in which historians and graduate students will grapple with the difficulties and opportunities inherent in placing focused scrutiny on limited evidence.
"As works like Ulrich's, Taylor's and Lepore's demonstrate, in the hands of gifted scholars microhistory is a remarkable tool for historical study," says Richard D. Brown, chair of the conference organizing committee. "Less certain, perhaps, is its usefulness as a technique for beginning historians, or as an approach that can be initiated without a significant mastery of the broad field under investigation. What we hope to do in the workshops is begin a thorough investigation of and discussion about methodologies and training in this area."
The conference runs from 12:30 p.m. on Friday, October 15, to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 17.