For some time now, I have been working under the assumption that family history and memoir require some sort of framework to guide the writing. It’s fine to rummage in your store of memory and reflect on the life you have lived. It’s also fine to research your family tree and trace your line of descent from your earliest known ancestor.
But without a theoretical framework, how can you craft a powerful and memorable account? How can you support your idea of the human? How can you justify the words you set down?
It turns out I’m not the only one thinking these thoughts. Sitting down to write this post, I entered “family history framework” into the Google blog search engine. It returned 1,110,000 hits in a mere 0.31 seconds, far less time than it would take me to peruse those results.
The first entry was one of my own posts. But resisting the narcissistic pull of my own words, I scrolled down to find this interesting piece by John Grenham at irishtimes.com.
Grenham asserts, as I have suspected for some time, that family history is, well, a form of history, a genre of past-seeking akin to “political, economic, social, cultural, local, micro” history. Reviewing the book Trespassers in Time: Genealogists and Microhistorians by Anne Patterson Rodda, Grenham traces the connection between family history and more traditional historical disciplines.
In the process, he introduced me to a new word: microhistory. This discovery sent me back to Google, which obliged once again with a slightly more manageable 12,400 hits in just 0.30 seconds.
It’s astonishing, all the things one doesn’t know. From “What is Microhistory?”, I learned that the term entered the academic lexicon in the 1970s and 1980s, when historians realized that the study of political events and social movements revealed the crowd at the expense of the individual. The focus on mass movements and economic forces, historians came to feel, did not take into account the experience of individuals living through a particular historical moment. Even when macrohistory did study individuals, it focused on the proud, powerful, and exalted while ignoring the poor, marginalized, exploited, or merely anonymous.
In reaction, microhistorians turned to the study of marginal, even historically insignificant topics. Farmers and peasants came under increasingly detailed scrutiny. The historian Carlo Ginzburg, for example, published The Cheese and the Worms, a detailed study of the Roman Inquisition trial of a sixteenth century miller.
What happens in academia rarely stays in academia. It turns out that microhistory as a popular genre has been growing apace all these years. At Just One More Page, I found a link to this Goodreads compilation of suggested microhistory titles. What a wealth of arcana! Apparently, people write (and read!) histories of salt, color, cod, Chicago brothels, cadavers, bananas, whaling ships, cancer, chocolate, and potatoes—and this cornucopia emerges from only the first page of the 22-page Goodreads listing of microhistory titles. My own interest in esoteric minutiae suddenly seems quite unremarkable. For once, I’m in sync with a trend.
“What is Microhistory?” does reveal one point of divergence, however, between microhistory and family history or biography. While these different disciplines may share elements of methodology, they differ in aims. The microhistorian generally attempts to connect the object of study with broader historical trends and developments, whereas the family historian or biographer will focus on the object of study without attempting to place it in a broader social context.
This is not to say that one cannot do both. History, after all, is full of people trying to have their cake and eat it, too. As I study the history of my own family, I notice two salient points.
One is that my family does not live in isolation, but is instead deeply influenced by the large, macrohistorical events it has witnessed. This influence penetrates the lives of every individual in my line of descent. It reveals itself not only in significant events, such as my great-grandparents’ flight from anti-Semitism, but also in the tastes, habits, and mores of all my ancestors.
My lineage includes magnates, peddlers, intellectuals, and one arsonist. In my research, I have encountered piety, irreligion, paganism, bisexuality, sobriety, and alcoholism. I believe these predilections result not from a random distribution of individuals along the bell curve of humanity, but instead from individual adaptations to historical moments, what you might call the inward response to outward events. I make this statement in all humility. I am not by training or inclination a systematizer. I am incapable of connecting all those dots.
The other salient point in my family history is its strangeness. These juxtapositions of magnates and peddlers, of irreligion and paganism, make for vivid reading. A dreamlike quality results from crowding so many quirky individuals into one text. This variety and strangeness seem essential to me. I can’t forego these qualities in favor of the grand sweep or historical conclusion. I guess I’m a miniaturist by nature.
For me, microhistory is the path to the nonfiction novel. Type that phrase into the search engine, and Google will give you 38,300,000 results in just 0.22 seconds. This page at Brittanica.com will give you as good a definition as any: “story of actual people and actual events told with the dramatic techniques of a novel.” As oxymoronic as the phrase might sound, it seems to fit nicely.
© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.