(So, apparently my blog post from last week never got published. My apologies everyone. This blog will then be a bit longer to recap on the past few weeks!)
After meeting with Dr. Kiechle I can say that I am definitely more toward the “acceptance” stage in thesis process. While she illustrated the most questions/ concerns regarding my proposal, I slowly began to understand, unsurprisingly, that she meant well and did so to ensure I crafted, in her words “the most intellectually stimulant, but concise, Master’s thesis.” Of all of her constructive critiques, her belief that my research questions were appropriate but “too big” resonated the most to me. As I have prepared myself throughout this entire process, I appreciated her candidness in saying that I simply have way too much research to all fit within the parameters of an MA thesis. As a result, I had crafted research questions too broad and inclusive, rather than specific and inquisitive.
She also recommended a book whose author and title I had heard of before but never considered to include as part of my secondary literature bibliography. I will say that after reading most of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s most recent study, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (2002), I am very glad that I purchased a copy of it with my Amazon birthday gift cards :). In her book, Ulrich takes a seemingly elementary concept, “the age of homespun,” and shows how it was constructed to fill the romantic needs of a feminized Victorian culture, dominated by the ideal of separate spheres, for a useable colonial heritage that celebrated the contributions of women alongside those of men.
Any reviews searched for online will illustrate the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s brilliance. One reviewer stated that Ulrich narrates how “fourteen obscure museum objects, ranging from an Indian basket lined with wool to a half-finished silk stocking, to examine the gendered transformation of textile making in New England from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. In doing so, she links social history to cultural history by scrupulously detailing the origins of an imagined moment in the American past that was created, embraced, and preserved by nineteenth-century New Englanders who yearned for a pastoral heritage unspoiled by technology, of which the mill cities encroaching on their landscape were the emblems.”
“The Barnard Familly Cupboard,” Hadley, Massachusetts, ca.1710-1720. Housed in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Yet, to me this book’s value was not in her daring, albeit the always challenging task of longue duree histories, argument, rather it was the way she used one object per chapter (some even stretching to 4o pages!) to tell a history of society. As someone who foresees material culture as an integral component in my future historical work, her mastery, therefore, is exhibited by her placing mundane object within the lives of individuals, generation after generation. Supplemented with an extensive archival documentary record of letters, diaries, memoirs, probate inventories, and court records, she is able to tell richer tales that illuminate both the history of the object and likely reasons for the myth surrounding its creation. I particularly liked her chapter on a ca.1715 cupboard from Hadley, Massachusetts. Boldly constructed and colorfully decorated , this piece becomes in Ulrich’s hands a way to explore questions of cultural history. It was ”a little castle” for the display and preservation of personal wealth, especially textiles, and also ”an assertion of life and order” in ”a world where Indians, witches and illness lurked.” Its overall ”flamboyance” reflected the ”upstart” Barnards’ family history. Its decorative patterning, full of hearts, pinwheels and lavish floral imagery, tapped an ancient vocabulary of fertility and ”fruitfulness.” Its inscribed name declared ”both ownership and literacy,” and ”assured some sort of immortality.” Its status as ”movable” property — the usual inheritance of women, in contrast to the lands and housing reserved for men — enabled future generations to mark a ”female line.” Each rests on a thick tableau of historical detail. Brought together, they reconstitute the world of Hannah Barnard and her peers — and it all starts from a cupboard. Most impressive is how Ulrich is able to demonstrate the changing delineations of meaning, ownership and use from generation to generation.
While she offered me several other outstanding suggestions for future development, Dr. Kiechle made sure I realize the importance in clarifying precisely: 1) who my historical actors are, 2) what questions I wish ask from both my material and text-based sources, 3) identify when, where, why and how community formation occurs (as she brilliantly noted that most early American migrants had already developed communal identities before arriving to their destinations) and lastly 4) hone in on and clarify what/ where the spatial boundaries of my research lies.
After this past week I have taken Dr. Kiechle’s suggestions to heart, begun organizing a meeting with all four of my committee members and continued to edit, but also “fine tune,” my thesis proposal. Other than Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, I have begun reading, also suggested by Dr. Kiechle, Jane T. Merritt’s At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763 (2003), and several other material culture guides specifically for historians, (see History Beyond the Text and History and Material Culture). Before reading these several guidebooks I considered myslef already well-oriented with material culture methodology and interpretation. Yet, after meeting with with Dr. Kiechle I felt like a touch up on some the basics would assist my efforts to reconfigure my research questions, argument, and topic’s spatial considerations. The biggest takeaway I have learned this week is while I am finishing my edits on my proposal and future research within my thesis, I need to ask myself and tell my readers what type of material culture approach I am taking; 1) history from things–treatment of material items in same way texts are treated/ interpreted–, 2) history of things–analysis of the relationship between objects, people and their representations–, or 3) history and things–considers artifacts positioned outside history altogether to permit historians to make creative and freer ways of conveying ideas about the past that are not not necessarily mediated by written language.
Rear faces of gravestones carved by Laurence Crone, McGavock Family Cemetery, Fort Chiswell, Wythe County, Virginia.
In light of these considerations, I have changed my title and time frame to: “Farmers, Entrepreneurs, and Craftsmen: Cross-Cultural Interaction and Community in Virginia’s Upper Valley Backcountry, 1760-1810.” I believe such changes will 1) give me more reasonable/ practical time frame to address within a MA thesis, 2) specifically places the actors in the front of my work for my audience to recognize how my chapters will likely be organized, and 3) this more constrained/ specifically delineated topic allows me to precisely address how cross-cultural interaction facilitated social, economic and political development in the southern backcountry. While emphasis is placed on how cross-cultural interaction and cooperation occurred, I will also address how particular socio-cultural identities remained distinct if not disparate. For instance culturally distinct folk art such as gravestones carved by Wythe County ‘s German migrant, Laurence Krone reveal the cross-cultural understandings and interactions. While Krone and other skilled (primarily German) craftsmen carved a niche out of their own socio-cultural understanding of the means to prosperity, Scotch-Irish families like the McGavocks (who owned and operated the lead mine at Ft. Chiswell) recognized German families’ specialty in certain trades. Such is evident by the McGavock family cemetery in Ft. Chiswell whose gravestones were predominately carved and inscribed in the German tradition, Laurence Krone.
Other items reveal that particular cultures maintained certain socio-cultural values, distinct from others within the New River Valley settlements. For instance, bed chests and the fraktur-style Taufschiens (birth certificates) were distinctly German elements of craftsmanship
Bed Chest from the Umberger Family of Wythe County, VA, ca. 1820. Notice how the Taufschein is pasted inside of the chest, on the lid.
that did not cross socio-cultural boundaries, whereas ledger account books and the items ordered and listed demonstrate the particularly merchant-based identities of Scotch-Irish and English families. Yet, the commonplace material objects on a landscape, such as a log house, demonstrate how cross-cultural interaction still remained an inseparable means of thriving within a frontier. While German vs. Irish floor plans in the lower Valley were distinguishable from 1720 to 1750, upper valley communities like in the NRV demonstrated how overtime migrant families came to interact, cooperated and learn from their frontier counterparts. These interactions contributed developed more amalgamated designs of folk architecture that shared German, Scotch-Irish, English, and African elements. Nevertheless, as I illustrated earlier, this does not mean that these “acculturated,” since specific niches and identities remained distinct across socio-cultural boundaries. Yet, similarly, this does not mean these families “persisted,” as we have seen that their living across the landscape was shaped integrally shaped by cross-cultural networks of cooperation and interaction. Thus, my work challenges the supposed “acculturation” “persistence” dichotomy that prior scholars have used in determining socio-cultural integration in frontier zones.
The “Holmes Place”- Pulaski County- 1790s, Near New River Bridge- West Side of Rt. 100. NRV folk houses with amalgamated cultural influences= Long house with parallel door entrances (Irish), two floor extension with high pitched roof (German)
As for meeting with my committee, it appears that next Monday morning (according to the Doodle poll sent to all of my members) will most likely be the ideal time and day for all of us to meet. I have shared my edited thesis proposal with each one and asked at the very least to scan over its main points and argument to allow each member to generate any questions, comments or concerns concerning my proposed thesis work.