Microhistory? or, Steps Towards a Thesis Proposal

Dissent has published a review article about Harvard historian Jill Lepore and her recent collections of essays, which makes a rather heavy-handed case that Lepore should be identified as a microhistorian. This appellation leapt out at me: I have read “microhistories” in every methods or historiography class I’ve ever taken, been assigned over and again Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and asked to consider the relationship between Ginzburg’s mad miller Minocchio and his intellectual and cultural context, and Ginzburg’s success at articulating it. But I’ve also wound up with an idea of microhistory as something that’s over and done with, a quaint relic of the 1960s-’80s “history from below,” or maybe of the postmodernist transmogrification of everything into a text and a narrative, à la the work of Natalie Zemon Davis from that period. It has never occurred to me that a historian of a younger generation might be described as writing microhistory, and indeed it’s made me wonder if, by the criteria this piece lays out, I am a microhistorian. After all, I have, since I began writing history, been interested in “second-tier” figures in the modern intellectual classes, and I use those figures—as this piece characterizes Lepore’s work—as a lens through which to view contemporary trends in sensibility, sentiment, ideas, intellect, values, ways of engaging with the world. Symonds’ life, and the way in which he pieced together a theory of homosexuality from a disparate set of intellectual influences, are a window onto what sex and love meant to the Victorians. So, I am hoping, are the ways in which Arthur Sidgwick put into practice philosophical and political positions that he’d developed as a young man in his relatively quiet, unhistoric political life as a teacher, parent, and activist in local politics another window onto late-Victorian and Edwardian ideals of liberalism and social reform from that afforded by the ever-chic, ever-larger-than-life Bloomsbury.

But I’m not sure this is what makes something microhistory. To me a microhistory is primarily self-contained, and one of the radical things that it does is that it does not feel a need to make the case for its subject’s importance. Menocchio or Martin Guerre are intrinsically interesting people, not necessarily because they can be connected directly to trends in life and thought larger than themselves. They leave a lasting impression on our sense of the colorful tapestry that is early modern Europe, but I don’t think of them primarily as figures who help us to understand things larger than themselves—c.f. another example of microhistory cited by the Dissent piece, Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre. Ginzburg and Zemon Davis both demonstrate prodigious contextual knowledge about the times and places in which Menocchio and Martin Guerre lived, but they use it not to get from their subjects to something “bigger,” but rather to add more detail and color to the lives of their subjects—particularly, in Zemon Davis’s case, to establish what we know and can’t about the life of Martin Guerre.

By contrast, I am not drawn to—or, perhaps, I don’t have the prodigious skill it takes to pull off—projects that can maintain historical interest intrinsically. With Symonds, I felt driven to talk up his importance to the story of the development of male homosexuality as an identity; I got myself into countless tussles with a secondary literature that doesn’t regard him as quite so important as I do in order to firmly establish the necessity of taking on this project instead of any other. Maybe this was kind of a juvenile impulse, the desire of a student still trying to establish herself as a “real” historian and demonstrate that she knows what is an appropriate subject for research and what isn’t. But I find myself doing it again with Sidgwick. For the first half of the Easter vacation I despaired a bit about my putative master’s dissertation project, not sure whether—absent a pivotal academic discovery like Symonds’—I could make a case for why we should care about Sidgwick. (Nor, in fairness, am I sure that there’s enough in his diary to sustain intrinsic interest, in the way that there sometimes is with a single breathtaking document that a historian has the excellent fortune to stumble across.) I feel that, without a way to connect Sidgwick in an important way to big names and big trends in the late-Victorian intellectual culture that interests me, this isn’t a project that would sustain my interest, much less my readers.

Happily, though, while going over some notes I’d made in Michaelmas, I remembered the key fact that (I hope!) is going to make it all hang together: Sidgwick was a member of the Cambridge Apostles. He makes passing, coded references to Apostles meetings and dinners in his diary (the Apostles were famously secretive, and used a certain set of slang to discuss meetings and members’ issues). William Lubenow’s The Cambridge Apostles, 1820-1914: Liberalism, Imagination, and Friendship is a flawed group biography of the Apostles’ widespread infiltration of and influence upon public life in the period, but it does decode those references in the diary and mention Sidgwick’s (along with his brother Henry’s) membership in the organization, and its primary subject is the Apostles’ relation to a particular stripe of turn-of-the-century liberalism that shaped fora from parliamentary politics to university reform to the novels of E.M. Forster and, indeed, the narrative of the development of sexual, and particularly homosexual, identity. It was this connection that helped me to see that Sidgwick’s work as a teacher and as an activist in Oxford university and local-government politics, and his personal relationships to his wife and children and to his students, might be a route to understanding what all these moving fin-de-siècle pieces might have to do with each other, how they might add up to a cohesive worldview, and what it has to do with other intellectual-cultural movements in the period, from Decadence to the evangelical Christianity that spurred so much social reform and poor relief. (I’m also personally compelled by the fact that when Symonds moved to Switzerland in 1878, this is precisely the world that he left behind, and seeing it through Sidgwick’s eyes (he and Symonds were good friends as young men, though they later drifted apart) may help me to understand what Symonds was missing and why his worldview may have been shaped more fundamentally than I’ve previously suggested by his expat status.)

We have a tendency to get distracted by larger-than-life personalities, it’s true, and that’s why people like Symonds or Sidgwick can help us to retell stories that have hitherto placed disproportionate emphasis on figures such as Wilde and the Bloomsbury Group. But I’m interested in telling these stories not for the sake of Symonds and Sidgwick, though they are people for whom I feel immense affection. Rather, what motivates my interest in history in meta terms is the perspective it can give us on huge humane things: how we treat each other, how we perceive ourselves in relation to others, how those connections are negotiated through the historically contingent avenues of sex, love—or pedagogy. For the most compelling thing about Sidgwick, to me, was that he was a lifelong teacher with a fierce passion for his vocation and a dedication to making education accessible to more people, whether in a set of lectures on Greek verse composition that attempted to recast the skill as accessible to and learnable by non-public-school audiences, in his successful efforts to remove Greek as an entrance requirement to Oxford, or in his lifelong commitment to women’s education in school, university, and private contexts. This is a model very far from that of the mid-Victorian schoolmasters in the mold of Thomas Arnold who have already received a great deal of historical attention; it allows us to engage in questions of what a university is for and what relation education has to do with social equality that are still extremely current.

I still need to learn what late-nineteenth-century liberalism is, much less what Sidgwick has to do with it, but I am excited to think that he is, after all, a way to ask the biggest questions. Before I hand in my dissertation proposal midway through next term, I will need to do more to nail down the precise primary sources I will need to track down and read in order to develop the sense of Sidgwick’s worldview I was able to develop for Symonds. Unfortunately, Sidgwick doesn’t have Symonds’ voluminous paper trail, but his diaries are of course all in Oxford, and his contributions to the Oxford Magazine and his many textbooks and school editions of classical texts are freely available here as well. Some of his children’s papers are also in Oxford. But I need to determine whether the Apostles thread will be worth a trip to Cambridge, and indeed how far in general I will need to venture outside of Sidgwick’s own life in order to tell this story.

But as I begin to push forward on this I think that my conclusion has to be that focusing your research, and the stories that you tell with it, through the lives of C-List celebrities doesn’t make you a microhistorian. At the end of the day I’m interested in the macro, and still—bright-eyed youth that I am—see my great lifelong research question to be, “What does it mean to connect with others?” But I stand on the shoulders of giants, from Ginzburg and Zemon Davis to, perhaps, Jill Lepore, to my own teachers, who have given me a sharp sense of the relation between micro and macro and an ambitious sense of what it is possible to do with history.


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