Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Category: dissertation

The planks in our own eyes

This is a post that’s been percolating in my brain, and in my academic writing, for a long time. The latest uproar – and the terms of the uproar – over leaked Clinton campaign emails with comments about Catholics has made it clear it’s as good a time as any to put these thoughts out there.

The criticism of these comments, which you can read about extensively in other places, hinges on the idea that Catholics will be offended by the characterization of their religion as “the most socially acceptable conservative religion,” espousing “severely backwards gender relations.” As Patty Miller points out in her recent RD piecemany American Catholics think their religion has severely backwards gender relations.  Much of the outrage is coming from non-Catholic Republicans, undoubtedly aware that Catholics are breaking for Clinton, and more significantly, against Trump. To argue that all Catholics would be offended by these comments is to be deliberately obtuse about the state of American Catholicism. Many historians commenting casually on Twitter have been able to easily compare this “offensive” language to the views of American Catholics, and see the complicated nature of that faith in this moment.

When it comes to our scholarship, though, historians of U.S. history are generally really bad at this. Really, really bad. Frankly, a lot of the work in American history reflects assumptions about Catholicism that are not the product of nuanced historical analysis.

In so many ways, the historical literature tacitly replicates Anglo-American arguments about the nature of Catholicism. The idea that Catholics, without the freedom of individual conscience, were incapable of being full participants in American democracy was an important one in 19th century America. That idea often shapes what voices from the past historians think they need to listen to, since it goes without saying that Catholics had to do what the Pope said and therefore we don’t really need to listen to what American clergy and laity thought. If we do, those thoughts are seen as the products of “bad” Catholics rather than a legitimate diversity of thought within the Church, shaped by local contexts but also by differing interpretations of doctrine. In a sense, many scholars seem to think there was a lack of diversity in Catholic thought (or that that diversity wasn’t allowed) till Vatican II.

Now, the literature on American Catholics and the relative diversity of their views is rather complicated, of course. Anyone who’s read the introduction to D’Agostino’s Rome in America knows what I’m talking about! We want to be able to say “American Catholics” felt this. And there is a reason for this impulse.

The problem is that specialists know that this requires nuance. There’s not even a clear “Vatican” position on anything; read about the history of the writing of the Syllabus of Errors, for Pete’s sake! Specialists also know that this is inherently transnational history – scholars of Catholicism were doing that before it was cool – but in American history, we have a lot of trouble doing that in a nuanced way.

The problem is that Catholicism and its structure are tacitly held up as a foil to American Protestantism – particularly evangelicalism – without a lot of attention to how Catholics themselves spoke and acted and understood their faith, because it’s easy to say “well they weren’t allowed to contradict Church teachings, so if they were, it still doesn’t tell us about ‘Catholicism.'” This circular argument, rooted in the contrast between Catholicism and Protestantism, shapes a lot of scholarship. I’m working on a piece right now on Catholic publishing in 19th century America, and much of the literature on evangelical publishing and its distinctiveness holds up Catholics as an example of unitary thought and self-censorship. These claims are rarely cited, but of course they don’t need to be. Everyone just “knows” what Catholicism is and what it stands for. The structure of the Church, and the political use of that structure in American culture, allows historians to ignore the complexity of historical American Catholicism, often without realizing it. When American Catholics disagree with European Catholics, or with other American Catholics, the tacit belief that disagreement is wrong and not tolerated within the Church shapes how those disagreements are analyzed. Since everyone “knows” there really isn’t liberty of conscience in the Church, those who disagree are bad Catholics, and their disagreements are not treated with the same legitimacy as disagreements among Protestants.

Everyone knows what Catholicism is, and so no one is really pressured to think critically about it. It’s why everyone thought they had the “answer” to my dissertation right away, or questioned the premise. I studied American converts to Catholicism in the 1850s, and the reactions usually fell along a few lines.

  1. Why would any rational American become a Catholic?
  2. Oh, they probably were anxious and wanted a religion that would control them/tell them what to do.
  3. Oh, this was women? Yeah, they were probably attracted to the aesthetics and music, right? [Obviously the misogyny in this answer deserves its own analysis, but let me tell you, it was not uncommon.]

While Moxy argues that we should be attentive to the demographic nuances within Catholicism (go read her whole thread; it’s great!), I’m arguing that we should also seriously reconsider how we study Catholicism, and in particular, how some deeply-embedded and problematic ideas about Catholicism shape our scholarship, even scholarship that is not explicitly about Catholicism. Especially that scholarship. The inherited ideas I’ve discussed here serve to perpetuate this idea of American Catholics as somehow separate from American culture, which means their view on a subject can be cordoned off or even ignored. Moreover, it means that everything American Catholics did in the past gets attributed to their transnational faith culture, rather than their local/national culture, further perpetuating this sense of them as slightly exotic. When we exclude the largest denomination in the United States from our analysis on this basis, we’re not writing the best histories. It also means some really amazing scholarship that’s being done gets ignored because it’s about Catholicism and therefore not enough about America.

You might be saying “receipts!” I haven’t cited much because I didn’t want to look like I was setting up authors as strawmen, but I’ve posted a PDF of the introduction to my dissertation in which I lay some of this out in more detail, with footnotes, in the About section. That being said, a lot of this is drawn from experience – conversations in my department, at conferences, online – as well as published secondary lit and popular culture. I am more than happy to entertain disagreement on the subject, and I’d love to hear what other scholars – especially junior ones like me – think about this.

Whose stories we tell, or, how Hamilton made me think about my scholarship

Why was I resistant to Hamilton at the start? Because when I was starting my dissertation, just sketching out what it might be, one of my peers said “Oh…so it’s just a biography?”

I know, that sounds a little petulant. Maybe it is a little petulant. But I think it’s also important for how we conceptualize and pitch projects, and how we speak to a general audience. No one would say “Oh, it’s just a biography” if your subject were A. Ham, and it was clear to me that in this case, the colleague believed that my work would be no more than a reconstruction of a life, and also that that life was not important enough on its own to merit a biography. I am in no way saying that it is worth a biography, or that it isn’t. What I want to think about a little, though, is how we conceptualize what lives we study and how we frame our analysis of a given life. I don’t have this all figured out, so I hope you’ll indulge me while I think out loud a little bit.

( Full disclosure: It is not surprising that I am hung up on the issue of microhistories, given my adviser and some of the other scholars I worked with in graduate school. I have also not re-read his article on microhistory or re-contemplated Jill Lepore contemplating Noah Webster’s hair in years. Maybe I should have done so before spilling my thoughts out here.)

To me, biographies center the person and their life experience, while microhistories use a person (or event) as a lens to explore a particular historical moment. Context is important in both cases, but its weight and role is different in each; in the former, its primary function is to help us know the central figure better, while in the latter, the central figure is there to help us know *history* better. There are certainly books that would call these broad strokes into question, and there are arguments to be made that the two overlap/intersect. There are obviously a variety of approaches within the genre of biography, but I’m not sure the distinctions matter as much for this discussion. I would say, though, that biographies published for a popular audience are probably at the extreme end of the spectrum I’ve drawn here. I hope you’ll grant me the broad contrast for the sake of argument.

So my dissertation was…a biography? It certainly didn’t do the microhistorical things I think it can and eventually will do. But there always seems to be a qualification on a dissertation anyway; it’s an underdeveloped form of whatever it might become eventually.1)It’s not a book, I know, but try explaining to your non-academic parents that this 375-page thing you wrote is not something your peers consider a book.  As I work on the manuscript, I find myself revisiting all of these questions about biography and microhistory, and Hamilton has helped me focus my answers a little bit by making me think not just about what approach serves my subject best, but whether or not every subject is seen to “deserve” the biographical approach.

My dissertation was not the first time I engaged in thinking about the difference, in form and function, between a biography and a microhistory, and the possibilities of biography writing in general. Before coming to graduate school, I worked as an assistant to Nancy Milford, who had written well-regarded biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay. When I worked for her, she was beginning a biography of Rose Kennedy, and over hundreds of cups of tea in her Washington Square apartment, I first thought very seriously about what it might mean to write the life of a woman in the past.

Though Nancy was writing about women who were privileged, wealthy, and/or influential, I don’t think those biographies were easy sells. Kennedy and Fitzgerald were both famous by connection to influential men. Millay, while utterly fascinating and well-connected in international circles, isn’t exactly a household name (unless you take the Staten Island Ferry every day). As I talked with Nancy about how to conceptualize a biography of Rose Kennedy, it was clear she believed that this interesting person had a life worth knowing about, and could illuminate the historical changes she lived through. I think she *had* to talk about context more, both because the context was often less familiar to a general audience, and because that was part of the “why” of the book.

I don’t think Nancy – or in fact most biographers of women – can get away with the “character” argument that seems to drive the most popular biographies of men. In these biographies, “character” is often shorthand for “how did this person use the immense power they had.” It can also be “were they even aware of the immense power they had and did they do anything about that,” but I don’t think that’s usually how it works. In this sense, some biographies of women seem to shade closer to microhistory because they have to in order to justify their existence, though they can trace the “look at the obstacles she overcame” narrative, one that is common with male biographies as well.

Moreover, biographies – especially those of famous men who left an extensive paper trail – seem to get to deal with something that historians don’t always know how to grapple with: personality. We all know that when our best friend reacts to something in a particular way, we don’t think “Well, that’s to be expected from a middle-income white woman from New England raised by working-class parents who is also grappling with her sexuality in geographical location generally unwelcoming to people whose behaviors deviate from traditional gender roles.” We do, a bit, but we also say “Oh, you know how she is!” I have sufficient evidence to feel confident in saying I know Jane’s personality – and how it rubbed many around her the wrong way – and writing her life meant understanding how her personality found expression in a particular place and time.

Much of my initial frustration with Hamilton was at the fact that – because of the form and because of the subject – Miranda didn’t have to justify the existence. The idea that this was a Founding Father not getting his due was sufficient. Why should anyone care about Jane’s personality? Or her character? She didn’t establish a financial system, after all. She barely even rates a mention in most books on her famous family because she never married and wasn’t a published author. People often talk about reading a biography that inspired them. If anything, a biography of Jane evokes empathy rather than inspiration; the pain of being a smart woman with no filter in a man’s world does seem to transcend time. But it doesn’t feel like that’s enough – she’s not enough – even though I find inspiration in the empathy itself.2)There is a “power of her sympathy” joke in here somewhere but I can’t make it work. Jane is not allowed to be fascinating in her own right, and has to show something. That’s fine, honestly. I can use her as a lens, and I want to. And I can accept that I’ve got to make an argument as to why her story and her life matter.

Moreover, “academic” historical biographies are different from many popular ones, though, and I think most historians who write biographies would argue that they are *not* looking to “praise great men.” I would largely agree with them. But as I move through the manuscript stage – the time when we make things bigger no matter what we started with – I find there are still perceptions among scholars about who is worth a biography or a microhistory that echo the tropes of popular historical biography. I find myself struck by the contours of the argument I have to make as to the relevance of the work and the limits that others are quick to place on my subject’s analytical usefulness. Frankly, making the argument that this woman and her experiences tell us about antebellum American culture, without any further qualifications, feels like “too much.” To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow. There are good reasons to consider whether members of non-dominant groups can tell us something about a majority experience, but that should make us consider a) whether that majority experience is inherently more “American,” and b) how to grapple with the fact that women were half the population even if they weren’t the dominant/powerful group.

These ideas about who tells us about America are powerful; when I was getting ready for my dissertation defense, the big claims I was making about America in the 19th century crystallized for me one day, and my next thought was “But she’s a woman, her experience can’t be representative.” Of course I don’t really think that, but the fact that I immediately thought “Don’t make too much of this person’s life” made me rather sad.

So as I write my manuscript, am I writing a biography or a microhistory? Often the tipping point for framing and methodology seems to be how famous and well-documented someone is. Is this a deep dive into someone important’s papers, or is it detection, recreation, and illumination of an obscure figure? Jane is somewhere in the middle; her writing is well preserved, though not as well as that of much of her family, but she’s not important in any of the ways that 19th century Americans (and later historians) understood  women to be “important.” Is she just another privileged white woman in the middle of the 19th century? If she’s not important enough to get a biography, is she distinct or unique or interesting enough to get a microhistory? And if she does rate a microhistory, what is the scale of the claim I can make?

It’s this last issue about scale that’s really troubling to me. I guess what I’m stuck with is the fact that there are books about men who convert to unconventional religions in the 19th century, and those books make an argument that those men tell us about America. If a white man’s experience of becoming a Shaker in the 19th century tells us about America – and I have no doubt we’d all say that it does – is there any reason a white woman becoming a Catholic can’t also make a similarly broad argument about America? There shouldn’t be, but the pressure to constrain the argument seems to be there anyway.

Ultimately, my question is this: can I write a book that’s about a woman who becomes a Catholic and make a claim about America and have that claim taken seriously? Or will my book be understood as “women’s history” and “Catholic history.” Both are good things, and things that I am doing. But is it possible to say more and have it register?  That’s the microhistorical challenge I’m facing, and perhaps I’m inflating it, but I suspect I’m not.

I’ve painted with some broad strokes in making my claims here, and I hope you will view them with indulgence. I’d love to know how others who’ve written in this genre have conceptualized their projects and whether they’ve wrestled with these issues too.

References   [ + ]

1. It’s not a book, I know, but try explaining to your non-academic parents that this 375-page thing you wrote is not something your peers consider a book.
2. There is a “power of her sympathy” joke in here somewhere but I can’t make it work.

My friend Jane

Though my dissertation is embargoed* while I work on the manuscript, I can’t stop talking about and thinking about and writing about Jane, my best dead friend. Here’s the abstract so you know where we are.

Jane Minot Sedgwick II and the World of American Catholic Converts, 1820-1890

When Jane Minot Sedgwick II (1821-1889), the daughter of an elite New England Unitarian family, joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1853, she joined a new faith culture while remaining embedded in the social world of her birth. This dissertation argues that friendship with other female converts of a similar class was the most important factor in leading her to the Church and smoothing her transition to Catholicism. As a young woman, she was largely uninterested in her family’s religious activities and uncomfortable with their religious zeal, but after developing friendships with several elite women who had recently converted, she came to see Roman Catholicism as a viable religious option.

Throughout Sedgwick’s childhood, her family had emphasized usefulness, rooted in Unitarian theology, as life’s central goal. Yet she and her family members struggled to understand the relationship between usefulness and happiness as Sedgwick sought usefulness but craved happiness. Family members fretted over the impetuous, independent behavior Sedgwick exhibited during her search for usefulness, but hoped that eventually finding it would bring her emotional stability. In light of her emotional struggles and the suicide of her cousin, Sedgwick’s family began to concede that perhaps happiness had to precede usefulness. After studying Catholicism for ten years, Jane made the decision to convert, a decision she described as rational, and one that she believed would bring her happiness. Her family members came to accept her decision because they thought it would provide her with the happiness and emotional stability to
become a settled, useful woman.

In Sedgwick’s new life as an unmarried Catholic laywoman in a transnational community of elite converts, friendship took on an increasingly important role. Confronted by family members who were uninterested in her efforts at Catholic philanthropy and priests whose ideas about gender and authority conflicted with her own, she sought support from others who understood her experiences as she endeavored to establish a Catholic school in her hometown. Inspired by scholarship on physical and cultural borderlands, this study illuminates the ways that converts inhabited borderlands between their several cultures, supported and consoled by others who shared their status.

*Yes, I embargoed, and no, I have no idea if it was the right choice. It was a choice made in the final days before the dissertation was submitted and I think we’ll all agree no one can really be held responsible for the choices they make in those days.

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