In the discussion of Marla Miller’s Betsy Ross and the Making of America, a book about a woman who left no trace in the historical record that survived, Susan commented that “I think the whole issue of how we go sideways into a topic that does not want to reveal itself is fascinating. And since I think I’ve spent most of my career working obliquely, it’s one I think about a lot.” Miller offered some more thoughts in a recent e-mail exchange on the question of why she wrote a biography of Betsy Ross, and sidles up to some of those “sideways” methodological issues:
On the “why not til now” question, I’ve given that a lot of thought. Your theory about the masculine slant of early American history is certainly part of it — I’d never thought of it quite like that, but I think the point is spot on. Also, of course, when women’s history emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, the antipathy toward Ross was palpable; undertaking any serious scholarly inquiry into her actual life would almost certainly have been a career-ending move. I really think that it’s not til now (or at least lately) that she’s become “safe” for scholarly study. And of course there’s the technological angle: the appearance of powerful databases like Early American Imprints, America’s Historical Newspapers and even Google Books makes possible research that I wouldn’t have lived long enough to do, even five years ago. I feel like I was just the right person in the right place and the right time — not just being someone interested in women’s and labor history, but having the intense interest I do in the nuts and bolts of early American craft skill, and also the public history orientation that helped me know how to approach the historic house museum’s resources. The whole time, I felt like the project was a tremendous privilege.
Miller’s point about biographies and/or taking Betsy Ross seriously in the 1970s or 80s would have been seen as unserious is a good one. Women’s historians in that foundational era were concerned with getting far beyond token women like Pocahontas, Betsy Ross, Sacagawea, and Mrs. O’Leary, who were seen as more appropriate for grade-school American history pageants than as subjects for serious study. And as some of you old-timers may recall, this was the era of the rise of hard-core cliometric social history, in which articles were composed mostly of charts and graphs. I don’t mean to disparage this era–it was very earnest, and many historians created huge databases and complex histories from tax rolls, vital records, and plantation records from which they could get at the experience of people who had neither the education, leisure time, nor cultural capital to create and preserve documentation of their own lives, and we still rely on their work today for the valuable portraits of early American society they wrote.
In the 1990s, cultural studies (led by literary types, with their Jacques Derrida and their close readings) helped social historians use textual sources again and allowed us to imagine histories that weren’t just publications of charts and graphs, but that told stories. This turn gave us the tools to employ both social historical research and textual sources to write sophisticated stories like Betsy Ross and the Making of America. (At least, that’s what I think I learned in graduate school, ca. 1990-96.) And as Miller notes, powerful research tools that permit word-searches of thousands of publications or documents are of enormous help.
As far as I can tell, the most innovative histories of the past decade have been written by historians who leave no archive unvisited, no book unopened, and no legend unexplored. The promiscuity of possible sources and methods for reading and using them makes history very exciting to read and to write these days. I don’t get the impression that there are too many historians out there who say, “you can’t do that” any more. (I could be wrong–but those nay-sayers would be even more wrong, in my opinion.)
What do you historians (or other cultural studies types) think? How have you gone about researching and writing “sideways” about subjects or topics? Where do you think history and methodology are going these days?
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