Monday, June 26, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (5th and Final)

In this fifth and final post, I want to say a few things about the future of microhistory. If recent discussions of theory and methodology, and just the production of historiography itself are any indication, then it seems that microhistory has a promising future. For example, a recent unigram search of Google Books indicates an exponential growth in the occurrence of microhistory from the 1980s up to the present. Kim Tolley’s new microhistory, cited at the beginning of the first post, is one of many.

Positive signs also turn up in one of my own subfields of study, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. The authors of a recently-published survey textbook, The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History, make the following generalization:
A shift away from macro-history began in the 1970s, especially rejecting history written from the standpoint of dominant institutions or socio-political elites. Instead, the focus was on “micro-histories” and the stories of outsiders and marginalized groups, especially immigrants, racial minorities, and women.[1]
Among the few works of Stone-Campbell history that fit this generalization, at least two stand out: Daisy L. Machado’s Of Borders and Margins: Hispanic Disciples in Texas, 1888-1945, and Edward J. Robinson’s To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius.[2]

To summarize this entire series then, microhistory grew out of the interests of European social historians and was developed in Italy beginning in the 1970s. Its initial concern was to use “microscopic” methods to verify, correct, and supplement macrohistory, whose generalizations might be misguided or incomplete. In this way, microhistory could serve the goal of the Annales school to present “total history.” Since its inception, some examples of microhistory have been criticized for their dependence on the methods of cultural anthropology, or for their indulgence in anecdotalism and antiquarianism. Nevertheless, works described by their authors as microhistories, as well as other works that exhibit some of the characteristics of the microhistorical method, have grown in popularity among historians. At least one advocate of microhistory, namely, American historian Richard D. Brown, does not consider this trend a scholarly fad. Rather, he sees it as important to the foundation of history itself.

Of course, Brown’s overall concern relates to much more than the usefulness of microhistory. For example, in a much more general way French social historian Arlette Farge has responded to the question of the relationship between truth and historiography. She takes a mediating approach, one that argues that while no historian ever produces “the definitive truthful narrative,” no historian worthy of the name can ever disregard truth, or fail to care about what is true.[3]

Here, there is a discernible correspondence between Farge’s position and that of Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. In his series of lectures titled The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, Gaddis observes that historians have always known that arriving at historical consciousness means one has learned “that there is no ‘correct’ interpretation of the past” and that “the act of interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience.”[4] At the same time, Gaddis rejects the extreme conclusion that because “we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space” we therefore “can’t know anything about what happened within them.”[5]

Both Farge and Gaddis would agree, it seems, that historians can and should identify many things that are true, while at the same time recognizing that one’s interpretation of a set of facts is just that: an interpretation.
[1] D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, and Paul M. Blowers, eds. The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013), 5.

[2] Daisy L. Machado, Of Borders and Margins: Hispanic Disciples in Texas, 1888-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Edward J. Robinson, To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).

[3] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 95-96.

[4] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 10.

[5] Ibid., 34.

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 is it that 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] Thus, microhistory can have a conservative as well as a radical function. 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.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (3)

In this third post, I take up some of the criticisms of the subdiscipline known as microhistory. What sorts of challenges have microhistorians had to face?

First, according to some detractors, microhistorical investigations run into problems that result from their dependence on cultural anthropology. Along this line, Karl Appuhn explains that at least some of the Italian microhistorians were interested in the possibility of deciphering “the historical variations in people’s lived experience of the world” by employing the methods of cultural anthropology, particularly the work of Clifford Geertz.[1]

Obviously, unlike anthropologists, historians cannot directly observe the people they want to study. However, they might accumulate “tiny, seemingly trivial bits of evidence” that would “eventually, the microhistorians hoped, enable them to assemble the data into coherent models of specific small-scale social interactions.”[2] From these, microhistorians could then, like Geertz and other cultural anthropologists, “draw much broader conclusions.”[3] This procedural model has generated one objection in particular: anthropologists exercise a good bit of latitude in their interpretations. And, when applied to history, this threatens to degenerate into relativism, to cast doubt on the conclusions of historians, to erode the authority of the discipline.[4]

Reaction to Roger Darnton’s popular book of 1984, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, provides a specific example of this angle of criticism.[5] Not long after Darnton’s work was published, critical discussion, especially about his Chapter 2, “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin,” appeared in the pages of the Journal of Modern History. Both Roger Chartier and Dominick LaCapra argued that Darnton’s borrowings from anthropology led him to use texts in ways that, to those practiced at close readings, seemed more than a bit too easy. As LaCapra expressed it,
Reading for Darnton is a rather cozy hermeneutic process in which meaning is fully recoverable even when it is asserted to be polysemous or multivalent. The focus on message and “worldview” facilitates this unproblematic hermeneutics of reading, for there is little attention to be paid to the composition, work, and play of texts. . . One difficulty in Darnton’s precipitate turn to anthropology is the implicit assumption that emulating the procedures of the latter discipline (as Darnton via Geertz understands them) may provide a “quick fix” for the difficulties encountered in historiography. The result would be that the position of the historian in his or her exchange with the past need not be interrogated.[6]
In this way, both Chartier and LaCapra insisted that primary texts are more complicated than Darnton seemed to recognize or appreciate.[7]

A second, more general criticism of microhistory is that at least some practitioners indulge in mere anecdotalism or antiquarianism. To put it bluntly, not every odd ball or outlier from the past represents a significant group of people or some aspect of history that has since become lost.

Regarding this category of objection, in 2006 Naomi R. Lamoreaux published an article in which she offers a few significant pointers that microhistorians should take to heart. An economist and historian at UCLA, Lamoreaux begins by noting that those who advocate for microhistorical approaches are right to complain about the tendencies of macrohistory to flatten out the particularities of the past. She worries, on the other hand, that some examples of microhistory veer “too far in the opposite direction toward antiquarianism.” The purpose of her comment, she writes, “is to suggest how approaching the study of ordinary men and women from the perspective of . . . ‘historical economics’ carries the potential to avoid both of these pitfalls.”[8]

Lamoreaux observes that some historians seem to value the work of merely “complicating” some aspect of history. By contrast, she notes, economists “do not see why making an analysis more complicated should necessarily be considered a good thing.” She insists that microhistorians
must also be able to demonstrate how putting the additional evidence back in leads to a very different understanding—an alternative model or narrative. In other words, “complicating” an analysis in order to underscore its limitations should be only the first step. It is important also to “resimplify”—to fit the evidence into a new interpretive framework.[9]
But how might that be done? How can historians “approach the task of resimplifying—that is, of showing that a complication leads to a new narrative or model?”[10]

At this juncture, Lamoreaux introduces a bit of jargon from the world of economics: exogenous and endogenous factors. These terms point to the fact that “[t]here is always an inside and outside to a story: there is always something external to the dynamics of the story that sets its events in motion.” Among those who speak this language, one common name for exogenous events is shocks.[11] Lamoreaux notes that along with other economists, she is mystified that any historian who shows how an individual in the past had agency—made what have to have been real choices and decisions—is thought to be making a contribution to what we know. How is that necessarily more than merely stating what should be obvious? Or, as an economist might ask the question, how are these studies anything more than investigations of mostly or entirely endogenous factors?[12] This is the very sort of observation that generates the criticism that microhistorians might be doing nothing more than relating anecdotes or indulging in antiquarianism. Lamoreaux insists that in order for microhistory to be something other than that, microhistorians must present a conversation between exogenous and endogenous factors, a dialectic that might generate an “additional twist,” one that would complicate “a conventional interpretation that can generate an important new analytic narrative.”[13]

What seems obvious enough is that neither of the criticisms noted here necessarily strikes at the heart of what microhistorians attempt to do. These are indictments not of the method itself, but of particular mistakes or misapplications. To the extent that they might clarify and correct, they should thus be treated as guidelines and helpful reminders.


[1] Karl Appuhn, “Microhistory,” in Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350-2000, ed. Peter Stearns (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001), 1:105.

[2] Ibid., 106.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 107-08.

[5] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Significantly, in his “Acknowledgments,” Darnton states that his book “grew out of a course” on history and anthropology that he taught at Princeton with Clifford Geertz, who, writes Darnton, “taught me most of what I know about anthropology” (xiii).

[6] Dominick LaCapra, “Chartier, Darnton, and the Great Symbol Massacre,” Journal of Modern History 60, no. 1 (March 1988): 104-06.

[7] Before LaCapra waded into the conversation, it was begun by Roger Chartier, “Text, Symbol, and Frenchness,” Journal of Modern History 57, no. 4 (December 1985): 682-95. Robert Darnton responded to Chartier in “The Symbolic Element in History," Journal of Modern History 58, no. 1 (March 1986): 218-34.

[8] Naomi R. Lamoreaux, “Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment,” Journal of the Early Republic 26, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 555.

[9] Ibid., 556.

[10] Ibid., 557.

[11] Ibid., 558-59.

[12] Ibid., 559.

[13] Ibid, 560.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (2)

Any explanation of the character and procedure of microhistory as a discernible methodology must begin with the story of its earliest practitioners and advocates. Who initiated the microhistorical method, and why?

In 1993, seventeen years after he first published the original, Italian version of his now-classic work The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Carlo Ginzburg, with tongue in cheek, claimed to know “two or three things” about microhistory.[1] He recalls that he and some of his Italian colleagues associated with the journal Quaderni storici began using the expression microhistoria in either 1977 or 1978.[2] They saw themselves as pioneers.

What were they setting out to do? Ginzburg explains that in his case, he was studying Inquisitorial trials “in an attempt to reconstruct, in addition to the attitudes of judges, those of the men and women accused of witchcraft.”[3] In his archival research, he hit upon the remarkable, intriguing story “of a sixteenth-century Friulian miller who was tried and condemned to death by the Inquisition.”[4] He notes that in the Introduction to the original 1976 edition of The Cheese and the Worms, he “took issue with an essay by [Francois] Furet in the Annales in which he asserted that the history of the subaltern classes in preindustrial societies can only be studied from a statistical point of view.”[5] The book that Ginsburg had by then produced was, in effect, a practical response to Furet: “In reducing the scale of observation, that which for another scholar could have been a simple footnote in a hypothetical monograph on the Protestant Reformation in Friuli was transformed into a book.”[6]

But what exactly was the significance and utility of The Cheese and the Worms and other works like it? As Ginzburg details, what he and others were discovering was that a close-up look permits historians “to grasp what eludes a comprehensive viewing.”[7] In other words, a narrow, even microscopic probe can lead to a necessary revision of a standard macrohistorical narrative. Ideally, then, microhistory holds the potential to contribute substantially to what twentieth-century social historians called “total history.” As I see it, this was and is one of the method’s great promises.

Karl Appuhn captures the essence of the approach when he writes that microhistory “is a historical method that takes as its object of study the interactions of individuals and small groups with the goal of isolating ideas, beliefs, practices, and actions that would otherwise remain unknown by means of more conventional historical strategies.”[8]

Appuhn further explains that the earliest microhistorians were responding to a perceived weakness in the way that scholars had come to practice social history. Instead of establishing and describing “the broader economic, demographic, and social structures” that traditional social historians took as their subject matter, practitioners wanted to “rediscover the lived experience of individuals.” The goal was to reveal how those individuals interacted with those very same structures.

And this was no mere novelty. The outlook of the microhistorians included an indictment: “Their criticism of traditional social science approaches” was not that social science was not possible or desirable. It was, rather, that social scientists had made “generalizations that do not hold up when tested against the concrete reality of the small-scale life” that they claimed to describe and interpret.[9] By going in the opposite direction, from small to large, microhistorians believed that they could recover some of “the lost peoples of Europe.”[10] Along this line, an essential move was to assume that the past is absolutely foreign to us. Whatever similarities might appear to exist between the past and the present must be ignored in the interests of discovering the unique features and dimensions of past societies. As Ginzburg described it, the process begins with “making the past dead.”[11]


[1] Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It,” trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1 (Autumn 1993): 10-35.

[2] Sometime after Ginzburg began to speak of microhistoria, he learned that others had already employed identical terminology, but in ways that were quite different from what he and other Italian microhistorians had in mind. He notes, for example, that George R. Stewart, an American, was apparently the first to microhistory. In fact, the word appears in the subtitle of Stewart’s 1959 book about Pickett’s Charge, the failed and fateful attack at Gettysburg led by Confederate Major General Edward Pickett. As Ginzburg discovered, Stewart’s work, which is replete with minutia about the incident, highlights the notion that if Pickett’s Charge had only succeeded, then Gettysburg would also have turned out differently, and thus the Civil War would have turned out differently. In this way, according to Stewart, a single incident had impacted all subsequent world history. See George R. Stewart, Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959). Ginzburg also points out that in 1968, Luis González, a Mexican scholar, used the term in the subtitle of a 400-year history of his home village, Pueblo en vilo: Microhistoria de San José de Gracia (Guanajuato, Mexico: 1968). But Italian micro-historians of the 1970s and 1980s did not recognize their approach in books about seemingly-small events that made an incredible difference, studied in minute detail, nor in long-term studies of a single village, etc. By microhistoria, they meant something quite different. Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 10-13.

[3] Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 21-22.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid. The passage he refers to here can be found in the English edition, Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), xx.

[6] Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 22. Ginzburg notes that none other than Fernand Braudel was among the first to express his disapproval of microhistory. This was because he identified it with what he had previously condemned as histoire événementaielle, the “history of events.” By that expression Braudel meant “traditional history,” or the “so-called history of the world” which was nothing more than stories “dominated by protagonists who resembled orchestra directors.” Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 26.

[8] Karl Appuhn, “Microhistory,” in Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350-2000, ed. Peter Stearns (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001), 1:105.

[9] Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), 108.

[10] Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds., Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe: Selections from Quaderni Storici (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). As one of my teachers, Professor Stefano D'Amico, pointed out to me, due to the work of diligent microhistorians featured in this collection edited by Muir and Ruggiero, many of those peoples are no longer so lost.

[11] Appuhn, “Microhistory,” 106.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (1)

Kim Tolley, a professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University in California, describes her recently-published monograph, Heading South to Teach, as a “microhistory,”[1] one that relates “the life and times of Susan Nye Hutchison (1790-1867) a northern farmer’s daughter who taught in North Carolina and Georgia during the era of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening.”[2]

Tolley explains that at one level, her work is about a seemingly-ordinary woman who did some extraordinary things. But at another level, she writes, “this book is about the significance of religion and education in antebellum American society and culture.”[3] Tolley offers a bit more information about the microhistorical method.[4] Still, upon reading Heading South to Teach, which is a fine piece of work at any rate, would even a credentialed historian know if the book does what a microhistory is supposed to do? Is the label appropriate in this case?

These kinds of questions have cropped up partly because microhistory has not always been well defined. While it may be that some of the imprecision is unavoidable, even preferable, it is also true that implicit definitions of the term have not always been consistent or well understood.[5]

The purpose of this series is to respond to a few central questions about microhistory. First, where did this approach come from? What kinds of goals were associated with the origins of microhistory? Second, what sorts of misunderstandings and criticisms have accompanied the rise of microhistory? How might those who see the potential of this method eliminate typical misunderstandings and respond adequately to the hard questions? Third, what are some of the works that stand out as solid examples of the microhistorical method? What features distinguish them as good models? Finally, what seems to be the future of microhistory? Going forward from 2017, how might this approach serve the goals of historians?

Again, that's what this series is all about. Interested in microhistory? Stay tuned.


[1] Kim Tolley, Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 11.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 11-12.

[5] On the variety and vagueness of social history, see Harry Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts in History (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 408-11.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Van Halen, before Anyone Outside Southern California Knew Who They Were

Not long after I'd completed comprehensive exams earlier this spring, I wanted to read something entirely different from what I had been poring over for months. So, I read Greg Renoff's book, Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal (Toronto: ECW Press, 2015).

The book starts with the early lives of the original members of Van Halen, and ends with the 11-month world tour that followed the release of their first album in 1978. During that tour, Van Halen usually opened for Black Sabbath, and they blew them off the stage every night. Renoff reports that the experience sent Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of Black Sabbath into something of a depression. They were getting whipped every time they performed.

If, like me, you bought the first VH album and wore it out, then you simply have to read Van Halen Rising. Some of the more interesting aspects of this one-of-a-kind book:

Renoff has a PhD in American history. So the guy knows how to do research. Speaking of which, he conducted scores of interviews with people who "were there," and he quotes them on almost every page. I don't know the historiography of Van Halen, but I'd bet there's nothing else about the band that matches this book for its depth of research and attention to detail. This seems to be one reason why Renoff decided to write it. He's a fan, and nobody had told the story like this.

One of Renoff's main points is that with soft rock, easy listening, and disco (Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, the Bee Gees, etc.) dominating radio play and record sales in the late 1970s, there was no reason to assume that hard rock or heavy metal was going to survive. The author argues that Van Halen almost single-handedly "saved heavy metal."

Anyway, Renoff was trained to make an argument, and that's his. But that's not the heart of the book. What makes the work stand out is the way that Renoff acts like an ethnologist (seriously) detailing the backyard parties and dive-bar gigs that VH played for years on end before they were discovered by people outside of Southern California. And that dominance of all sorts of styles besides hard rock? That led record executives at the time to think that no new hard-rock bands could break through. So why sign them to a contract? That's why the guys in Van Halen were local heroes to teenagers and bikers in places like Pasadena and Hollywood for years before anyone else knew who they were.

All the while, whether they were playing for hundreds of kids in someone's big backyard, or for a dozen roughnecks at a bar on a rainy night, Van Halen always acted like they were playing Madison Square Garden. So when they exploded onto the world's stage, it all seemed so natural. They'd been practicing hard for a long time.

A few other details: Renoff makes the case that if there was an insecure member of Van Halen, it was their virtuoso guitar player, Edward Van Halen. On the other hand, David Lee Roth (who back in the day was simply "Dave Roth"), musically the weak link in the band, had all the confidence, charisma, and showmanship. And this rubbed off on all the others, especially Edward. Renoff suggests that had it not been for Diamond Dave, Alex and Edward Van Halen might have become two of the greatest undiscovered musical talents ever. When the brothers first met Dave, they played all of their gigs pretty stiff and wearing sneakers, worn out jeans, and flannel shirts. Dave is the one who taught them that they couldn't be just great musicians. They had to do more. They had to dress and act like rock stars.

From the other side: Going into the studio to make the first record, Roth realized that when it came to recording an album, his stage presence wasn't going to help him much. He understood that if he didn't do something to improve his mediocre singing, next to the virtuosity of Edward Van Halen's guitar playing, Roth was going to sound terrible. So he took private singing lessons (insisting that anyone who knew about them should call them "voice lessons"). The guy devoted himself to practicing every day. And by the time VH recorded the first album, Dave's singing had improved. All along, he remained the perfect persona for fronting Van Halen.

Oh, and Michael Anthony? The last of the four members to join the original group, Anthony has always been rock solid on the bass guitar, and was easily the best singer and strongest voice in the band. He's the reason that VH was able to do all of those nice three-part harmonies, a feature that made the band stand out from other big-rock acts. Anthony was always the high tenor, and in the studio and on stage, he never missed a note. When the band was recording their first album, producers and engineers focused on how whiz kid Edward's guitar sounded. Anthony has since regretted that no more attention was given to the bass tracks. At the time, he didn't know any of the tricks for perfecting his own sound in the recording studio. So there are parts of the original record where he doesn't like the way the bass sounds.

Anyway, there's so much more to this book. So if you sometimes think of yourself as "the atomic punk," then you'll probably want to read it.