September 14, 2010

excerpt: Microhistory

Have you not bought this book yet?  From Gordon S. Wood's The Purpose of the Past, Chapter 9:
According to many in the historical profession today, any sort of grand narrative of the past is frowned upon. Even as hard-nosed a historian as Richard D. Brown, who has written several substantial synthetic studies of early America, has succumbed to the postmodern skepticism of the present climate to the point where he doubts the possibility any longer of historians' writing large-scale synthetic accounts of the past. In his presidential address to the Society of the Early Republic, published in 2003, Brown stated that historians' claims to be telling the truth now stand on shaky ground. 'Syntheses cannot make the strongest truth claims because they are based on such selectively chosen facts.' He suggested that historians should escape from this dilemma by writing microhistories, small studies of particular localities, persons, or events. 'By exploring a finite subject exhaustively (though not definitively), the microhistorian commands the evidence on that subject beyond challenge; so within that topic readers learn to accept his or her authority.'" Certainly microhistory has flourished since the mid-1990's... But...
Wood goes on to cite specific authors and texts discussed elsewhere in the chapter. He cites one microhistorian who went on to write a "grand narrative of political history" in 2005, which won a Bancroft Prize. Wood calls this "a welcome sign of change."

My comments:

Some dilemmas can't be escaped from forever.  Eventually, I suppose, all these vigorous microhistories will surely contribute towards something larger, but what that might be we surely cannot predict.

Again, though, Wood's focus is on American History.  One parallel I see with Biblical Studies is the pattern of specialization.  But as with microhistories, one hopes that eventually all such knowledge might converge.

Meanwhile, apparently, not all grand narrative writers are going to remain on the sidelines.  Nor should they.

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