Sunday, January 9, 2011

Method to My Madness

The book itself is what I'm taking to calling a "sideways" or "oblique" biography. That is, I'm approaching Douglass through the women with whom he lived and associated, both public and private and at the intersection of both.

Other historians have used this method more frequently in recent years. The most famous would be, of course, Annette Gordon-Reed's acclaimed The Hemings of Monticello. Although she focuses on the Hemings family, I couldn't help but feel as if I were reading a biography of Jefferson, too. Not a full-blown, traditional biography, but a biography of him as a slaveholder, and the master of this particular family. Similarly, both John Kukla in Mr. Jefferson's Women (Random House, 2008) and Virginia Scharff in The Women Jefferson Loved (Harper Collins 2010) consider the ways that Jefferson interacted with women. Kukla focuses on Jefferson's romantic liaisons, while Scharff explores the connections of responsibility between Jefferson and the women closest to him. At the risk of drawing ire at those who dislike Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait, I'll venture that Fawn Brodie also observed Jefferson from the vantage point of women, as well. Then, beyond Jefferson scholarship, you can find Jane Glover's Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music (Harper Collins, 2005) and Germaine Greer's (did you know that she was originally a Shakespeare scholar?) Shakespeare's Wife (Harper Collins, 2008). I'm sure other examples are out there. I could swear I saw a book about Elizabeth I and her women in the bookstore at the airport last month.*

From these oblique biographies emerges a pattern for this method of examining the Great Man (or, I suppose, Great Woman) from the point of view of a particular group of people in his life -- women, in most of these examples and in my own work. First, the author must reconstruct the lives of the women in question.The biography of the Great Man, then, also becomes a series of biographies about the women. In some cases, reconstructing a woman's life will be less difficult because she had the privilege that allowed her to leave the sorts of records that historians use for biography. In others, she become a hole in the narrative. The author must reconstruct everything around the woman in as much detail as possible in order to get some idea of who she could have been, always with the awareness that this portrayal is an educated guess.

Oddly enough, in my experience, I've had a more difficult time reconstructing Anna Murray's life as a free black woman than I have with Harriet or Betsy Bailey, Douglass's enslaved mother and grandmother. Enslaved women appear in a record because they had value to their masters as property. Free black women? They made their own way, hidden in other people's homes, their names changed in marriages that were often not recorded because their husbands were enslaved, and moving about frequently in order to find work. You might be able to reconstruct their lives as a group, but as individuals they prove quite elusive.

Getting back to the method, if the first order of business is to reconstruct the women's lives, the second is also to address the ways that other scholars have interpreted those lives -- if at all. Since the women in the lives of most Great Men, including their wives, appear as supporting characters, the women's historian who has begun reconstructing the women's lives often finds that historians have relied upon other historians who have relied upon yet other historians in order to form their own interpretation. The women's historian may also discover a new interpretation to the same stories simply by looking at the events from the women's point of view.

For instance, Scharff takes the romanticized tale of the Jefferson honeymoon and considers what the newlywed Martha Jefferson might have experienced riding up the mountain, soaked and shivering from the snowstorm, only to find a construction site, no fire and no food. In my case, I continually come across interpretations of the first Douglass marriage that describe him as disappointed. While that may be true, could she not have been disappointed herself? One you begin to tease out that thread, you begin to see the Great Man in a slightly different light.

Which leads to the third and most important part of the method: what do these relationships say about the Great Man himself? What new insight does the study offer into his life, his ideas, his work, and the events that he shapes? What, too, does that insight tell us about gender relationships at that period of time, and the lives of women?

This,  then, is my method for the moment. I'm trying to reconstruct the lives of these various women by looking at what they wrote (if they wrote), what they did, what others wrote about them, and how other women in similar circumstances lived. I'm also looking at the ways that other historians have written about these women and their relationships to Douglass in order to see if I can synthesize and add to the conversation. Finally, I must figure out what it all means.

Then, of course, I must write it all out in an engaging and eloquent narrative for the audience's enjoyment!

*I won't discuss the novel Douglass's Women here for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it is, in fact, a novel and not history.


  1. I really enjoy oblique histories for the different perspectives and insights they offer. When I've had the opportunity to come at my own research from the side door, it's always way more interesting.

    Total tangent, but read a speech yesterday positively glowing about Douglass re: the Women's Rights Convention in 1848. I thought of your work, and about all these *other* Douglass women. It's in "Papers Read Before the Seneca Falls Historical Society for the Year 1908 Proceedings of the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Woman's Rights Convention..." Seneca Falls Historical Society, Seneca Falls, NY 1908.

  2. Hey Digger!

    Sideways is definitely more interesting, isn't it?

    I'll take a look at that source. I sort of wandered into that early 1900 period a week or two ago, and found some very interesting things going on related to memory that I hadn't encountered before. More on that later, of course!

  3. Will be interested in your notes on memory; I've been researching memory lately in an area tangential to Douglass.

    The "Proceedings" of 1908 are online!