Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

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.

2 Comments

  1. Very thoughtful piece. I struggled with some of this when writing a dissertation-then-book about a single figure and his intellectual work, which I pitched as a study of the origins of a form of social science through the lens of its creator’s career and ambitions. It irks a little when it’s cited as a biography, though only because that often seems intended to exonerate the person citing it from engaging with the book’s argument — it becomes “background” instead. (I have to think this is less likely when the biography is about a really big name, say a Founding Father.) So the point you make about more marginal or harder-to-reconstruct-or-categorize lives tending to be justified most effectively as microhistories — so as not to seem simply antiquarian — rings true. On the other hand a self-proclaimed biography of a neglected or unconventional subject (Bonnie Anderson’s new book on Ernestine Rose comes to mind) can have obviously wider historiographical implications.

    A side-note: I think “character” (like “genius”, which loomed large in the literature on my subject) is an analytical category we should probably try to do without, for the reasons you suggest.

    • Erin Bartram

      September 10, 2016 at 9:46 pm

      “It irks a little when it’s cited as a biography, though only because that often seems intended to exonerate the person citing it from engaging with the book’s argument — it becomes “background” instead. ”

      I never thought of it that way, but I bet I’ve cited books in exactly that manner. It’s rather sobering to think of!

      I agree with your point about the historiographical implications of a new biography; since one major vein of the literature that I’m delving into has almost completely been built on the biographies of a few people, I think just adding one more life to the picture could really shake up our assumptions.

      As for “genius,” that seems like something that’ll do more harm than good. Some of the literature I work with faces a related struggle – what do you do with a saint?

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