As you might be able to tell from my recent posts, I have recently been contemplating historical theory and the historian’s craft, especially as it relates to Mormon history. I am particularly interested in historiographic methods that have not, as of yet, been adopted in Mormon studies. (See here, for instance.) Today, after reading Jill Lepore’s evocative essay “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” I am contemplating the benefits of microhistory.
Microhistory has been an emerging field as of late, especially with the diversification of cultural and social history. In its most basic sense, it is the study of a rather narrow topic as a way to explore broader themes. These studies could include an isolated town, a limited timeframe, or a single individual. Leading microhistorians include John Demos, Carlo Ginzburg, Laurel Ulrich, as well as BYU’s (and Times and Seasons’) own Craig Harline. Using the methodology of biography as a comparative lens, Lepore outlines the benefits of microhistory while at the same time trying to better define the broader approach. At the risk of simplifying Lepore’s engaging exploration of the methodology, I will just list her four “propositions” of the difference between biography and microhistory:
1. “If biography is largely founded on a belief in the singularity and significance of an individual’s contribution to history, microhistory is founded upon almost the opposite assumption: however singular a person’s life may be, the value of examining it lies in how it serves as an allegory for the culture as a whole.”
2. “Biographers seek to profile an individual and recapitulate a life story, but microhistorians, tracing their elusive characters through slender records, tend to address themselves to solving small mysteries about a person’s life as a means to exploring the culture.”
3. “Biographers generally worry about becoming too intimate with their subjects and later betraying them; microhistorians, typically denied any such intimacy, tend to betray people who have left abundant records in order to resurrect those who did not.”
4. “A biographer’s alter ego is usually the subject of the biography, while a microhistorian’s alter ego may be a figure who investigates or judges the subject. For this reason, a microhistorian may be a character in his own book.” (141)
Though Lepore devotes much of her article to the methodology of biography, that is not my focus here. (Which is a shame, because biography is such a popular approach in Mormon history and deserves attention—perhaps a future post.) I wish to rather explore the benefits of microhistory, and hopefully start a discussion on its potential, progress, virtues, or vices of such an approach.
One of the obvious benefits is the ability to sidestep some of the common snares of Mormon historiography. With microhistory, one does not have to take a stand on if Joseph Smith was a prophet or a fraud, whether Brigham Young’s teachings were necessarily racist or not, of whether Joseph Fielding Smith’s views were a shift or continuation of traditional Mormon theology. The historian does not have to fully divulge their personal stance—or “declare one’s allegiance,” as I’ve previously discussed. While many examples could be mentioned, what comes directly to my mind is D Michael Quinn’s struggle to be fair with J Reuben Clark, an individual who was directly opposite intellectually than Quinn himself.
The second benefit I’d like to highlight is it forces one to engage larger themes. Rather than just focusing on a specific Mormon event or individual for their own sake, microhistory enables one to broaden both the implications and the relevancy of that topic. This requires a better understanding of the broader context—a virtue traditionally missing in Mormon historiography—and is an important step in the development of Mormon history. Jan Shipps commented how such a step is necessary for the field to emerge from the “provinciality” of the past into a “new sort of Mormon history.” One of the great achievements of New Mormon History was using broader contexts to better illuminate Mormonism—now it is time to use Mormonism to further illuminate the broader context.
Before I open up the discussion, I should highlight a couple of the best examples of microhistory in Mormon studies. Kathleen Flake, in her book on Reed Smoot, uses the isolated event of the Mormon apostle’s senatorial seating as a way to engage broader issues of American religious identity in the progressive age. More recently, Laurel Ulrich has utilized a single Mormon quilt from 1857 while exploring the broader issues of faith, family, and national tensions. I’m sure other examples could be easily identified.
Now, what advantages do you see such an approach can offer Mormon history? What are some of the potential pitfalls? What authors and texts do you feel do the best at utilizing microhistory?
 Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88 (June 2001): 129-144. See also here.
 Jan Shipps, “Richard Bushman, the Story of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, and the New Mormon History,” Journal of American History 94 (September 2007): 516.
 Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “An American Album, 1857,” American Historical Review 115 (February 2010): 1-25, summarized here.