OCTOBER 15–17, 1999 • UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT
Since the publication of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (1978), Carlo Ginzburg’s Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (1976), and Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Guerre (1983), the influence of microhistory has grown dramatically among early Americanists. Included among a number of major publications employing this approach are the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture’s 1997 Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America and such prize-winning works as John Demos’s Unredeemed Captive (1994), Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town (1995), and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale(1990). In the 1990s, certainly, microhistory has assumed a prominence that recalls and is intellectually related to that of local studies in the 1970s. Textual and ethnographic analysis, supplemented by social, political, and economic data drawn from public and private records, have enabled scholars to create rich and persuasive accounts of hitherto obscure people and events, especially subjects in social and cultural history.
Because microhistory concentrates on the intensive study of particular lives, communities, and unusual events as prisms for understanding larger cultural and social structures, its practitioners argue that microhistory can reveal the fundamental experiences and mentalités of ordinary people that broad analyses of nations so often conceal. Microhistorians also tend to favor narrative modes of presentation, which they regard as most fully reflective of lived experience. Critics, however, fault microhistory for its emphasis on exceptional people and events, for its immersion in small detail at the expense of big questions, and for its readiness to bypass quantitative and social scientific standards of persuasion. They challenge the claim that the particular, the local, or the exceptional can truly serve as microcosms of larger wholes and that microhistory can reveal the most fundamental aspects of emotion and experience. Some have even wondered whether, with its preoccupation with the local and the exceptional, microhistory truly qualifies as history. This conference, Microhistory: Advantages and Limitations for the Study of Early American History, will address such issues through both case studies and broader analyses. It will begin to chart where microhistory goes from here.
The program committee for this conference included Richard D. Brown (University of Connecticut), chair, Irene Quenzler Brown (University of Connecticut), Natalie Zemon Davis (University of Toronto), John Demos (Yale University), Alan Taylor (University of California at Davis), and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Harvard University).