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.

Writing Deindustrialisation

September 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’m always surprised by how deindustrialisation and the economic and social dislocation it caused in the northern United States and Canada gets written about.  Take, for example, an otherwise interesting and informative article in The Boston Globe last weekend.  In an article about Sahro Hussan, a young Somali-American, and Muslim, woman who has created a business of avant-garde fashions for Muslim women, in Lewiston, ME, Linda Matchan, The Globe‘s reporter, writes:

Lewiston was one of the largest textile producers in New England, rolling out millions of yards in cotton fabrics every year.  In time, though, the industry struggled to compete with Southern states where production costs were lower.  Lewiston went into decline.

While there is nothing factually wrong with Matchan’s description of what happened in Lewiston (or any other industrial town across the northern portion of North America), note how any responsibility for what happened is removed from the equation.  Matchan makes it sound like this was just an entirely natural process.

Deindustrialisation wasn’t a natural process, it didn’t just happen.  The reason why the mills in Lewiston (or Lowell, Laurence, Lynn, or anywhere else) struggled wasn’t some random event.  It happened because the corporations that owned those mills decided that they were not producing enough value for share-owners.  So these corporations pulled out of places like Lewiston and moved down South.  Why?  Because production costs were too great in the North, the workers made too much (they were often unionised), and there was too much regulation of the workplace for the corporations’ preferences.  So, they were induced to pull out and move down South where workplace regulation was minimal, where workers weren’t unionised, and the corporations could make great profits.  The governments down South actively worked with these corporations to bring them South, mostly through these unregulated workplaces and tax incentives.  As a friend of mine notes, this is how the South won the Civil War.  But the South’s victory was shortlived, as soon, the corporations realised they could make even more money for their shareholders by moving overseas.

So.  Long and short, deindustrialisation wasn’t just some random process, it was a cold, calculated manoeuvre by the corporations that owned these mills, in conjunction with cynical state and local governments in the South.

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