History through Biography*

This term, I’ve focused my upper-level colonial America course on biographies*.  Our books, with one exception, use a biographical lens to examine the time period.  In part, I chose to use biography because European colonists themselves were biographical people; interested in a narrative of who they were, how they came to be in this “new world”, and how they fit into the larger world of Western civilization.  I also chose biography because I want to expose my students to the biases implicit in that genre.  Of necessity, you have to chose which life moments to include and omit, which experiences are most important and what events shaped or were shaped by the subject. It is rare for my students to be forced to make those kinds of choices in a class assignment, yet it is that level of discernment that really starts to demonstrate mastery of discipline and material.

Journalists and “popular historians” have long recognized that humans are attracted to biography–we like to have a voyeuristic look into the lives of historical people.  For academic historians, biography has come in and out of favor over the years.  The genre’s narrow lens can illuminate the intricate evolution of ideas, but it can also put individuals on pedestals they don’t deserve.  Moreover, over the past few decades, historians have scorned the emotional connection many biographers have with their subjects preferring the distance of microhistory with its emphasis on culture and context.

I’m challenging my students to write their own biography or microhistory.  My hope is that they will think carefully about the story they tell and what they include.  Unlike our survey classes, where we challenge students to narrow a large topic down to a small and refined topic, I want my students to move from the narrow intricacies of a person’s life to the larger context of culture, politics, and religion.

And, on an even more personal level, I hope that they will think about their own biographies.  Where are they moving our modern world? Where is the world moving them, instead? One of the most humbling aspects of reading biographies is that many individuals act in spite of cultural norms and conventions and not just because of them.

There are a number of very readable, scholarly, biographies and microhistories on early American topics.  I’m including a few here if you are interested.

  • Ann Little, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright
  • Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
  • Jane Kamensky, Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary
  • Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early Republic
  • Philip Gura, Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical
  • Gordon Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

*Listen, I’m using the term biography here even when what I really mean is microhistory.  I’m just now trying to get my undergrads to understand the difference and when it comes down to it, all of our microhistories DO use  biographical lens.  If you aren’t a scholar (or really, even if you are) and want to understand the difference, find a way to read Jill Lepore’s “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 88 No. 1 (June, 2001), 129-144.  You won’t regret it–it is a great read.

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