Bringing the Past to Life

February 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

Twenty-odd years ago, I took a course on pre-Revolution US History  at the University of British Columbia.  I don’t know what possessed me to do this, frankly. It must’ve fit into my schedule.  Anyway, it turned out to be one of the best courses I took in undergrad.  It was taught by Alan Tully, who went onto become Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor of American History at the University of Texas.  We read a bunch of interesting books that semester, including one on the early history of Dedham, Massachusetts.  But, the one that has always stuck out in my mind is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Diary of a Midwife: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812I remember being deeply struck by this book as a 20-year old in Vancouver. I had a pretty strong interest in women’s history as an undergrad, but this was one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

In my last semester teaching at John Abbott College in Montreal, I taught US History, and assigned this book. I even got in touch with Dr. Tully to tell him how influential that course had been on me, and how influential this book had been and to thank him.  I think he was chuffed to hear from me, even if he didn’t remember me (I wasn’t a great student,I barely made a B in his class).

I am teaching US History to 1877 this semester and I have assigned this book again.  Last time I assigned in, in 2012, my students, much to my surprise, loved it.  And they loved it for the same reasons I do.  Ulrich does an incredible job showing the size of Martha Ballard’s life in late 18th century Hallowel, Maine.

Based on the singular diary of Ballard, Ulrich delves into the social/cultural history of Hallowel/Augusta, Maine, drawing together an entire world of sources to re-create the social life of Ballard’s world.  I’m reading the book again for class, we have a discussion planned for today.  I’m still amazed at how Ulrich has re-created Ballard’s world.  And even if Ballard’s written English isn’t all that familiar to us today, 200+ years on, you feel almost like you’re in the room with Ballard.  She has her own singular voice in my head, I feel like I know her.

Writing history isn’t easy. It is a creative act, attempting to bring to life things that happened 10 or 200 years ago.  We work from disparate sources, with multiple voices, created for a multitude of different reasons.  They agree with each other, they argue with each other.  And it’s our job to bring all of this together.  In many ways, we’re the midwives of the past.  The very best History books are like The Diary of a Midwife or E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class: they bring the past to life. They make us feel almost like we were there.

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