As I was thinking about what I wanted to write about today, I was reading through a position paper I wrote for my historical methods class. I wrote part of the paper on getting involved in the historical narrative, and investigating microhistory. That being said, I have taken an excerpt from my paper for you to read. I hope you enjoy it!
A popular way to spread history involves telling a narrative. Rather than simply presenting a paper, tell a story. Historians, “configure the events of the past into casual sequences . . . to give them new meanings,” thus making the narrative necessary to spread knowledge of these new meanings. Narratives are easy to use because they are intrinsic to human nature, unlike historical thinking. They should be seen beyond the mere story, and pondered for understanding. (1)
These stories are not meant to be tools to help parents put their children to sleep, but rather sources of information to understand a world different from our own. The problem with narratives is that they inevitably have value judgements and points of view. Writing a narrative and having passions is “not in themselves wrong or unruly, but they could promote societal confusion and disorder when not governed by reason,” this is where the historian must use the self-denial and appropriately contain passion. They are able to weave together the story that attracts people to history. In regards to narrative history, I believe that Jill Lepore correctly states that, “Storytelling is not a necessary evil in the writing of history. It’s a necessary good,” because it creates that rich story needed to describe the events or person.(2)
However, historians must also remember that, “Good story telling, we contend, builds upon an understanding of context,” and so historians must be weary to ensure that they are not sacrificing truth for that good story. Even tiny slivers of history can tell a story. This microhistory involves looking at a person in the past not for their “uniqueness” but for “exemplariness.” (3)Take Philip Vickers Fithian for example. While in the grand picture of colonial America, Fithian was not a monumental figure, John Fea takes this figure and uses his story to describe how the greater culture acts. (4)
In telling this kind of history, the risk of objectivity is threatened through the “greatest problem of microhistorians” which is to overgeneralize. When overgeneralizing, sometimes the key facts can be left out. However, in many instances, microhistory is the only way to figure out how the society functioned, and on the grander scale certainly provides a good base in understanding the culture that the person functioned within during his life. (5) I understand the overgeneralizing argument, because every person is unique. However, through recognizing that certain events in a person’s life are unique, historians can interpret which events represent the “exemplariness” that Lepore argues that studying a person for microhistory is all about.