Personally Speaking / Next of Kin: A Scholarly Shift in Focus
On the first day of each semester, I introduce myself to my students as a lifelong learner who has changed the direction of her life many times. Indeed, I worked as a waitress, secretary, director of purchasing and inventory control and certified ski instructor before turning college professor. I’m a better historian for these experiences. And now, I’ve also changed my scholarly focus; this Latin Americanist, a specialist in late colonial Chilean merchants and their families, is now turning her attention to a microhistory of an independent, adventuresome Southern woman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Like almost all change, this one was sparked by historical circumstances and individual acts. One gloomy day late in an endless Wisconsin winter, a colleague asked me, “Do you really have to publish your dissertation?” Such heresy! Publishing their dissertations is what historians do! But no, of course, I didn’t have to publish it. In fact, circumstances suggested a better course.
In every one of my “careers,” fads and fashions have exerted their influence and, sooner or later, yielded to new ones. In academia, social history, of which my dissertation is an example, had become passé. Cultural history was “in.” Having milked the dissertation dry of articles, I was dead tired of studying merchants. I never even taught my field of specialization; the contagious enthusiasm of my students for Cuban and Mexican history had taken me in that direction instead. Moreover, I was concerned about the costs in time and money of research in Chile and Spain.
I was also strongly pulled toward what I now call “The Grandma Stannie Project.” After a lifetime of intending to record her marvelous stories of life in Montgomery, Ala., at the turn of the 20th century, I would now write an honest-to-goodness professional microhistory of my grandmother, a biography of a single individual that illuminates the history of the times. Its scope embraces race and class relations, especially in the Jim Crow era; the suffrage movement; migration; women’s education and new organizations (e.g., the YWCA and Camp Fire Girls); World War I and the War Work Council; and various topics related to family life that include alcoholism and divorce, the tuberculosis sanatorium, twins and clairvoyance, food, railroads, travel and car culture.
Having pursued the historical study of kinship networks, women and race as a Latin Americanist, I believed that I could learn enough U.S. history to pull off this new book project. Like most professors at liberal arts colleges, I’d become a generalist, with training, skills, knowledge and interests that would serve me well in the new project, as would my comparative perspective. And although academe pulsates with turf wars, my open-minded colleagues approved my new project, and the associate dean encouraged me to go forward. The new research proved to be even more exciting (and safer) than heady days spent in the Chilean National Archives.
In addition to stories and memories, serious history requires additional documentation. Grandma Stannie loved history and had saved boxes of photos and documents including letters, certificates, deeds, contracts and a diary. There were family and friends to consult, too – but I had been out of touch with my Southern relatives for decades. How would they respond when I asked for help?
Cousin Ted welcomed me with open arms, spoiled me with Southern hospitality, and facilitated my work. He involved other family members, including cousin Boots, the repository of family and local history and a talented storyteller. Ted also led the way in reconciling Boots with his once-favorite cousin, my difficult father, thus bringing the Southern and Yankee sides of the family back together.
So, personally speaking, I gained a family, as well as new insights into the family I thought I knew. And, while it may sometimes feel as if I’ve just changed obstacles (from a military dictatorship to family dynamics), this shift in my professional focus has been exciting, intellectually reinvigorating and rewarding.
Nov. 19, 2013