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  • Local History, National Contexts:Exploring Microhistory in Henderson, Kentucky
  • Nicole Etcheson (bio)

“What is the difference between microhistory and local history?” a colleague asked when told I was guest editing this issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. My off-the-cuff answer—we were not, after all, in the hallowed halls of academe but at a sandwich shop near campus—was that local history is often antiquarian in its focus on details that have little meaning for those without a deep interest in that locale. Microhistory also looks at detail—what Giovanni Levi called “microscopic observation” of an event, a person, or a place—but does so in order to achieve “wider generalizations” about the past.1

Europeanists pioneered the study of the microcosm. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms used the papers of the Inquisition to understand the worldview of a sixteenth-century Italian miller. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Natalie Zemon Davis, having already [End Page 591] been a consultant on the movie, used court records and the judge’s account to tell the story of an imposter who assumed the identity of a sixteenth-century Frenchman and, before being exposed, also claimed his estate and wife. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou used records of the Inquisition to re-create the world of a French village in the early fourteenth century. The genre of microhistory is alive in European history today, as seen in Matthew Kadane’s 2013 study of an eighteenth-century English cloth-maker, Joseph Ryder, based on the spiritual diary he kept.2

At the same time that Europeanists were producing classic microhistorical studies, American colonialists were developing the community study. Kenneth A. Lockridge traced the collapse of the utopian religious experiment known as Puritanism by studying Dedham, Massachusetts.3 Using tax and land records, wills, genealogies, town meeting minutes, and many other sources, Robert A. Gross studied Concord, Massachusetts, in the Revolutionary era. Gross sought to place the town’s fame as the site of the first battle between colonists and the British “in the context of the townspeople’s ordinary lives” and in so doing, found a community that went to war in order to avoid change, yet set in motion processes that would eradicate the old order.4 By the mid-1980s, when Darrett B. Rutman and Anita H. Rutman wrote their study of Middlesex County, Virginia, the “historical community study” had become widespread in their field. Unlike scholars who had studied New England, where towns, churches, and schools fostered community, the Rutmans found these same institutions to be far more fragile in the Chesapeake. The society that emerged in Virginia was deeply based on race and hierarchy.5 [End Page 592]

Microhistory seeks “to ‘recapture’ the experiences of hitherto obscure people and to give them voice.”6 Jill Lepore, in her recent account of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane, notes that Benjamin’s story is “the story of a man as the story of a nation,” whereas Jane’s story is that of “everyone else.”7 Through Martha Ballard’s diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich recaptured “the very texture of life in its most ordinary forms” for a Maine midwife in the post-Revolutionary era.8 And Patricia Cline Cohen explored the urban culture of antebellum New York City through the murder of a prostitute.9

Microhistory elicits how individuals act within social and political systems.10 As Jill Lepore has written, microhistory employs “stories and people as devices” to get at larger subjects and truths.11 Eva Sheppard Wolf tells the story of Samuel Johnson, a free black man who petitioned the Virginia legislature for decades in order to remain with his family in the state. The legislature never acted on the petitions, and Virginia law required freed slaves to leave the state, but the Johnsons lived as if free in their community, demonstrating an actual fluidity in the supposedly rigid boundaries between slave and free in a slave society.12 Similarly, studies of place can also illuminate larger historical issues. By the mid-1980s, historians outside the colonial period began to produce their own community studies. John Mack Faragher’s classic Sugar Creek...


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