One of my favorite essays to use in the classroom is Jill Lepore’s “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography.” The piece, published in the Journal of American History in 2001, considers the levels of intimacy a historian has or can have with her subject. In a graduate class, it is a helpful way to open a discussion about the merits of biography and microhistory as approaches to historical scholarship. Besides, Lepore is a masterful and entertaining writer, inviting us to play the voyeur while she strokes a lock of Noah Webster’s hair and ruminates on life-writing.
“Finding out and writing about people, living or dead, is tricky work,” Lepore rightly observes. It requires historians to “balance intimacy with distance,” a life skill as much as a scholarly one. As I delved into researching the man and woman at the center of my recent book, Real Native Genius, I often worried about that balance. At times, I began to feel a real connection with Okah Tubbee and Laah Ceil, a Mississippi man and a New York woman who invented American Indian identities for themselves as antebellum performers. I became somewhat obsessed with them, agonizing over details of their lives that were obscured from my view and lying awake wondering whether I really understood why they made the choices they did. I had to constantly remind myself that I was not writing a biography, but a microhistory that used their lives as a lens to understand the past. According to Lepore, biographers tend to fall in love with their subjects, whereas microhistorians often achieve more distance. Biographies hinge on the uniqueness of their subjects, whereas microhistories argue for the “exemplariness” of theirs. Again and again, I struggled to adjust my microhistorical glasses and find a more objective and emotionally distant frame of view.
And as much as I was fascinated by them, enthralled by their lives, their choices, and the outcomes, I realized nearly halfway through writing Real Native Genius that I did not know Okah Tubbee and Laah Ceil at all. What was worse, I didn’t respect them. This realization hit me with great force when I received feedback on a portion of the book dealing with Laah Ceil’s apparent decision to part with her three older children and go on the road with her new husband, Okah Tubbee. My indefatigable writing group held me accountable for my choice of words. I had written that Ceil “abandoned” her children, implicitly judging her for her actions.
It was quite a shock to see how easily I had betrayed my subjects. I’ve always been a bit sanctimonious about respecting the people we study. I encourage graduate students not to refer to people in the past as “actors” or “players.” They’re people, I insist, and they were no less complicated than people are today. Wary of presentism, I shudder to read the work of scholars who apply modern standards of behavior or decorum to past actions. Trained in ethnohistorical methods, I work hard not to transpose the values of one culture or society onto another. And yet, there it was. I had plainly judged Laah Ceil, imposing not only modern notions of maternal affection, but my own personal values as a parent.
As I grappled with why I’d made this choice, two things became clear. First, one cannot separate one’s own subjectivity from one’s scholarship. So it is better to acknowledge the biases and power differentials we are aware of as well as the existence of those that we may not recognize. In fact, Indigenous Studies and Chicana Studies scholars have been urging this for decades. See, for example, the influential work of Linda Tuhiwai-Smith and Emma Pérez. Second, we must let go of the myth of historical intimacy. Even in our best efforts to decolonize and demystify academic histories, the historian always wields some level of power over the person in the past, if only in greater access to information. And, of course, the historian is also telling the story. That power—and responsibility—is evident in my misstep with describing Laah Ceil’s choice. I knew that when she said goodbye to her children in 1850, she would not see them again for 19 years. But she did not know that. Although I never discovered evidence of it, she may have tried again and again during that time to rejoin them. Or maybe she didn’t. I have to accept either possibility without knowing which one is true. At the end of the day, the story I have been telling is not her story and it never was.
That, to me, is the myth of historical intimacy. We do come to know our subjects in a very real way by researching, analyzing, and interpreting their words and actions. But we are never telling their stories. We are always telling our stories about them. We may see the intimate details of their lives, hear their words, even stroke their hair, but their stories remain their own.
Angela Pulley Hudson is associate professor of history at Texas A&M University. Her book Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians is now available.