Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My History with American History

Last week, the publicity attending the Rosenbach Museum & Library's acquisition of a gorgeous Thomas Sully portrait of Rebecca Gratz brought a number of people to this blog for the first time. One of them commented: "I found [your site] incredibly interesting, and I can't figure out why, because normally that period of American History is of limited interest to me."

His words took me back to a moment in my childhood when sitting at my desk in the 5th-grade, I gazed in dismay at the next section in our history book, "The Coming of the Iron Horse." I had liked American history to that point: the age of exploration, the colonies and the Revolutionary War, even the Constitution and the first years of the republic. There were stories, descriptions of the colonists' struggles and heroic Founding Fathers. But technology was not my cup of tea, and the account of America's antebellum period was full of it. The political events were even worse, as each came freighted with a name which included at least one long latinate word not in my vocabulary: the Missouri Compromise, the Tariff of Abominations, the Nullification Crisis. And all these things were described in a bright bland "Pageant of America" style.

I took American History again in the 8th and 11th grades, but to no better effect. I liked history
and continued to read it for pleasure -- English, French, Russian, medieval, classical -- but never American.

Passing quickly over college, graduate school, career and family -- by the 1990's I had found my interests in history to be focussed on women and everyday life and was ready to try a work of American history with these themes. A Midwife's Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, swept me (and practically everyone else who read it) into the world of rural Maine at the beginning of the 19th century. Ulrich had teased out (through painstaking research) a picture of the lives of the women in the area through the brief entries in the local midwife's records.

My old scholarly leanings reawakened, I decided for fun to research Rebecca Gratz, a figure I had first encountered at the Rosenbach. As a docent I knew her story and the legends which surrounded her. I wished to determine the truth of these assertions, and this goal was feasible because Rebecca, her family and friends had left more than 2000 documents which might hold the answers. I've learned a great deal about Rebecca, but reading her letters also opened up her world to me: antebellum America with its moral ambiguities, religious ferment, new technologies and political stalemates seemed not so different from the United States of the 21st century, and with Rebecca at the center, it was possible to grasp how these issues affected individual lives. Researching Rebecca's life and times has been rewarding for me, and I hope I am sharing some of that experience with those who read the blog.

I will return to Rebecca after Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I wish you a happy holiday.

(Steven Riddle's complete comments about the blog, quoted in part in the first paragraph above,
can be read on his site, "A Momentary Taste of Being.")


  1. History is so much more alive when we abandon the "great man" version and actually learn what real people did. Great to have one more wonderful story of a real women to explore.

  2. Thank you. I appreciate your encouragement.


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