Saturday, June 24, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (4)

If the method known as microhistory is both legitimate and productive, then what microhistories stand out as the best examples of this subfield? What features distinguish them as good models? Above all, what do microhistories uniquely accomplish?

Here, pride of place belongs to Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. The key to the success of Ginzburg’s work as a microhistory is not his story of the now-celebrated Menocchio, so much as it is his demonstration that Menocchio’s case was not purely unique. There was also, as Ginzburg tells us, a “rustic in the Lucchese countryside who hid behind the pseudonym Scolio.” Much like the main character in The Cheese and the Worms, Scolio “projected onto the written page, elements taken from oral tradition.”[1] Like Menocchio, for example, Scolio was convinced that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all preached some version of the Ten Commandments. The two men also shared what Ginzburg calls “a common store of traditions, myths, and aspirations handed down orally over generations.”[2]

Ginzburg next introduces yet another peasant radical, Pighino (“the Fat,”) who was likewise a miller. The author notes that sixteenth-century millers had, at best, mixed reputations, and were well known for their radicalism. Dealing with a wide variety of people, they worked in out-of-the-way places, where people freely exchanged ideas much as they would at “the inn and the shop.”[3] These were the places where the cultures of “peasant religious radicalism” and of “peasant egalitarianism” were kept alive.[4] Consequently, Ginzburg argues, we should reject any assumption that “ideas originate exclusively among the dominant classes.” What is required of historians is a “more complicated hypothesis about relationships in this period between the culture of the dominant classes and the culture of the subordinate classes.”[5] This represents what should be regarded as the most significant contribution that Ginzburg’s work offers to the historiography on the period. Not only does the book relate a compelling story, more importantly, it shows us a part of the past we would not otherwise have seen and signals why it is important for us to know that part.

Since the advent of microhistory, Americanists have also employed this methodology, but often in ways that deviate from or go beyond what Ginzburg and his cohort were trying to do. In a 2003 article titled “Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge,” American historian Richard D. Brown identified three types of works that can be called microhistories. First, he cites investigations of certain locales over a long period. Alternately, scholars have given such works labels like “the new social history” and “community studies.” Significantly, perhaps surprisingly, Brown places in this category a book published as early as 1963: Sumner Chilton Powell’s Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town.[6]

Brown identifies a second type of microhistory that he calls “intensive community analyses” designed “to illuminate and explain particular events.” Examples of this category are Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974) and Robert A. Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World (1976).[7]

Third, Brown notes that there are many works that merely give a voice to extraordinary but little-known people from the past. It is at this point, with the third possible category, that Brown draws a line. He insists that microhistorians should “be eager to test and refine standing generalizations.” He agrees with pioneering microhistorians like Giovanni Levi who believe that, ideally, microscopic observations should “reveal factors previously unobserved”; and with Jill Lepore when she asserts that microhistory must not be confused with a celebratory biography of someone from the past who, simply because of his or her qualities or experiences, everyone should know.[8] Microhistorians are trying to discover big things.

As noted earlier, when it comes to Americans, without calling their works microhistories, a large number of scholars have produced books and articles that Brown would include in his expanded definition of the type. Perhaps the best example is Alan Taylor’s 1995 work William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. As the reader soon learns, this is much more than a thick biography of land speculator William Cooper, the founder of Cooperstown and Ostego County, New York. By detailing and contextualizing Cooper’s aspirations, his rise to wealth, and the fortunes of his family, Taylor is able to shed new light on the politics and demographic character of what was in the 1790s the western frontier of New York. As Taylor shows, although Cooper’s humble background would suggest an interest in Jeffersonian republican politics, he did not favor the style of authority connected with the title “Friends of the People.” Instead, Cooper, whom Jefferson himself once called “the bashaw of Ostego,” hoped to become one of the few genteel “Fathers of the People” in his community, a style much more in keeping with the outlook of the Federalists. But it was not to be. Above all, the rise of Jeffersonian politics at the local level, part and parcel of the republican revolution of 1800, undermined Cooper’s dreams for himself and his heirs, including his son the novelist James Fenimore Cooper.[9]

Another possible nominee is Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age. Ask any well-informed American what the 1920s were all about, and the answer will likely include flappers, speakeasies, dancing the Charleston, Republican presidents, the Harlem Renaissance, and the growth of jazz. Arc of Justice reveals that the answer should also include the presence of deadly racism in America, even in a northern city like Detroit. Boyle sets out to tell the story of a black medical doctor, Ossian Sweet, his family and friends, and the incident and subsequent trial that made him a significant historical figure. A fine piece of journalistic and popular history, this book does not begin with a thesis statement per se. As Boyle continues, however, it appears that his purpose is to drive home the point that although the saga of Ossian Sweet is a compelling story, one that should be told, of greatest significance is the story's context, an American racism that often seems to recognize no restraint or limit.[10]

This last work brings us back to the question of boundaries, the definition of microhistory. In 1993, Carlo Ginzburg expressed his conviction that “the reconciliation between macro- and microhistory” should not at all “be taken for granted.” In fact, it “needs to be pursued.”[11] With approval, he pointed to the opinion of Siegfried Kracauer who saw in Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society the perfect approach. According to Ginzburg, that approach was “a constant back and forth between micro- and macrohistory, between close-ups and extreme long-shots, so as to continually thrust back into discussion the comprehensive vision of the historical process through apparent exceptions and cases of brief duration.”[12] This naturally raises a question: in order for a work to be a microhistory, is it necessary for the author to intend it as such? From the foregoing, it seems clear enough that one distinction between the two sides of the Atlantic is that Europeans like Ginzburg are more likely to answer that question with a “Yes,” while Americans like Brown are more likely to say “No.”

In fact, Brown sees microhistory, including what might be called its indirect or implied forms, to be an effective response to what he styles “the post-modern challenge.” He begins by noting that historians are often slow to adopt new trends in scholarship. Unlike scholars in other academic fields like sociology and literary studies, historians are wary of embracing theories or methods that might soon turn into yesterday's fads. Yet Brown confesses that he is “a convert to microhistory, and an evangelical one at that.”[13] He observes that as early as the 1890s, Henry Adams, whom he describes as a proto-postmodernist, complained that the field of history had become hopelessly subjective. It was, according to Adams, “a sort of Chinese Play, without end and without lesson.” As a discipline, history was “an inextricable mess.”[14] Brown responds to this, as well as to similar criticisms coming from more recent scholars, by acknowledging that history is indeed “a subjective construction derived from ‘facts’ that were selectively recorded to serve a wide range of purposes, and which often survive by chance.” It is also true, he admits, that historians select from the universe of facts according to their own logic and intentions. “The very subjects we choose to recover . . . are based on our politics broadly conceived, our judgments of what is important, and the tastes of our audiences.”[15]

Still, Brown is not yet ready to give up on history. To begin with, there are many things that we can know and confidently claim about the past. For example, he asks, where is the American historian who will assert that in the early republic “women, blacks, Indians, or the poor controlled the levers of power and ran the state”? The same principle works for positive assertions as well. Thus, we can state without fear of serious challenge that the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787.[16] When it comes to such matters of fact, mountains of consistent evidence permit historians to make claims that compel the assent of every reasonable person. Of course, more serious kinds of questions appear and multiply whenever historians begin to make claims, as they invariably do, that are more intuitive. Any work of synthesis, for example, is by definition a scholar's creative projection. And, even those historians who never attempt a grand synthesis routinely engage in the same kind of activity. In fact, those historians who do not carry on such work thereby welcome the criticism that they are the sort of scholars who know “more and more about less and less.”[17]

This is precisely why Brown advocates the microhistorical method. He envisions it as the very type of scholarly work that can produce an effective response to the post-modern challenge. Again, works of history, invariably synthetic to one degree or another, are open to the criticism that historians piece together their narratives in much the same way that clever defense attorneys spin alternative stories about crimes. But how can historians avoid these kinds of suspicions? After all, historical narratives and especially works of synthesis simply cannot make the claims they make without standing “on a footing of disparate monographs.” This is critical because, for the sake of the credibility of their work, historians need to be able to convince others that “history deserves its status as an authoritative source of truth.”[18] Now that “fake news” is an everyday expression, could historians have anything more important to do?


[1] Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 112.

[2] Ibid., 117.

[3] Ibid., 119

[4] Ibid., 123.

[5] Ibid., 126.

[6] Richard D. Brown, “Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge,” Journal of the Early Republic 23, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 10.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] Ibid., 14. Here, Brown cites two important works: Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991): 93-113; and Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (June 2001): 129-44.

[9] Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Knopf, 1995).

[10] Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York: Picador, 2004).

[11] Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things I Know about It,” trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1 (Autumn 1993), 27.

[12] Ibid. Later, Ginzburg points to Siegfried Kracauer as having been ahead of his time. Kracauer, he writes, “had already foreseen” that “the results obtained in a microscopic sphere cannot be automatically transferred to a macroscopic sphere (and vice versa)” (33).

[13] Brown, “Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge,” 1-2.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] Ibid., 8.

[18] Ibid., 10.

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