Navigating Distance by Marla Miller

Part II[i]

This is the second of two posts by Marla Miller reflecting on The Role of Historians in Public Life symposium. For Part I, click here.

As I traveled to Prague to participate in “The Role of Historians in Public Life,” a symposium organized by Tammy Gordon of North Carolina State University and Jaroslav Ira of Charles University, at the North Carolina State European Center in Prague, I expected to think about intersections between history, heritage, and capital-P Politics. But I didn’t expect to have such a rich opportunity to explore comparative issues in local history. 

These conversations were timely for me, as I am at the end of a long (l-o-n-g) book project that sits at intersections of early American women’s history, labor history, material culture and local history. Mark Salber Phillips’ On Historical Distance loomed large through the day as I absorbed this fascinating series of talks.[1]   How much distance—temporal and spatial—is enough?  How is distance across time mediated by the nearness of place? 

The book I am finishing—a microhistory of women, work and landscape in Hadley, Massachusetts (the town where I now live, though I didn’t when this project commenced twenty years ago) in the half-century after the American Revolution—seeks to contribute to historiographical conversations about evolving social relations of labor over decades that witnessed profound transformations in U.S. women’s lives.  It is not a work of public history, but it is deeply grounded in the methods and sources of (and my deep respect and affection for) local history, and considers in its conclusion the role of public history practice (both in specific local institutions, and more abstractly, across the U.S.) in shaping popular historical understanding of (or, misperceptions about) early American women’s work.

What’s more, the work depends on just the kinds of local history institutions that my fellow presenters from the Czech Republic were considering in their own research.  Hadley boasts three small museums: The Hadley Farm Museum (founded 1930), the Porter Phelps Huntington  House Museum (1955), and the Hadley Historical Society (1976).  In the weeks just before I left for Prague, I was writing about how these particular organizations, together with others further afield, in the stories, documents, buildings and objects they preserved as well as those they discarded or suppressed, helped create the public understandings of early American labor that my study seeks to address.  As familiar as the strengths and liabilities of local history work are to those of us who practice local and public history in the U.S., I was somehow nevertheless unprepared for how familiar the local history organizations, local historians, and community dynamics considered by the day’s presenters would seem. 

Jakub Jareš explored the absence of the recent past in local history interpretation, and raised the problem of “proximity”—not just in time, but in place.  The historical actors and families involved in difficult local events often remain the neighbors they have long been; the prospect of re-opening old wounds mitigates against close examination of sensitive subjects. Maja Konstantinović suggested that local history can play roles in reconciliation, offering by way of example her organization’s work around the expulsion of German-speaking populations after WWII. Their project “The Disappeared Sudetenland”—which puts pre-war and contemporary photographs in then-and-now pairings—doesn’t aim to propose any particular trajectory (that is, that things were better or worse then as compared to now), but rather seeks to show “the most striking changes in the countryside in the border region and especially the hard-to-replace cultural losses due to the post-war displacement of Germans.”  The effort was controversial, as some observers worried that it would at the very least revive local tensions, and could have (some feared) worrisome implications for property claims, but has been successful in that it plants seeds of reconciliation. In discussion, Konstantinović reminded us that anthropological research indicates that temporal distance of at least two generations is important; heritage work is possible once direct connections to the events under consideration have been lost, and problems become more abstract, less emotional. 

Linda Kovářová’s presentation resonated in its discussion of the degree to which local history projects can rise and fall on the powerful personalities behind their creation; her organization’s “community coordinators” help move conversations forward in many ways—among them helping make fresh connections and see opportunities that inhabitants of a given place, settled in their ways, may miss. Jaroslav Ira’s discussion of the “social functions” of local history practice—correcting narratives, supporting memory work, fostering local identity, placemaking, and other more instrumental uses—touched on that issue as well, and was particularly productive for historians like myself who write about the places they live, and play visible roles in local history landscapes, as scholars and public speakers as well as members of historical commissions and history organization boards.  His survey of a range of local history expressions—brochures and publications by both professional and avocational authors that could just as easily have been images of books and posters for events associated with Hadley’s 350th anniversary celebration in 2009—touched on scholarly monographs as one end of this local history continuum.

Thinking about how idiosyncrasy and personalities affect local history practice was productive for me as I bring my current work to completion.  My chapters revisit, reinterpret and challenge ideas long cultivated in local collective memory; they also offer new insight, as they narrate (for instance) histories of enslavement and mixed-race families in the town, as well as the lives of hardscrabble households that sometimes turned to theft and other strategies to keep body and soul together. The project involves the significant historical distance that Phillips would say confers scholarly legitimacy, but that distance in time is not large enough, perhaps, to overcome nearness of place.  I think a lot about how the stories I tell will play when I take my seat at next year’s town meeting, and wonder what my responsibility is to the descendants of my subjects.  The lines separating “academic” and local history are less clear when I live down the street from the great-great-grandchildren of my historical actors, see them at the library or serve alongside them.  How much distance—temporal and spatial—is enough?

A post-symposium walk along the Hadley common with the always-thoughtful public historian Margo Shea gave me an opportunity to reflect further on these questions in the very setting that raised them.  Margo reminded me of the need for local historians to summon additional courage, noting how easy it can be to hesitate to “compromise one’s own standing in a community where deeply invested pastkeepers can resent interpretations that do not reflect the stories they value and emphasize.”  Certainly the historians engaged alongside Tammy Gordon, putting themselves at very literal risk in their town square, demands a kind of courage that far exceeds my own concerns.  “Perhaps,” Margo added, “engaging the consequences of our scholarship needs to be part of the story we tell.” 

[1] Mark Salber Phillips, On Historical Distance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

[i] I’d like to thank Tammy Gordon and Margo Shea for their thoughtful engagement with this post.

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