by Catherine E. Kelly
This week, we will launch the first of three online OI Author Conversations scheduled for the current academic year. Featuring scholars whose books are forthcoming or recently published, this series will open up the research, writing, and thinking that go into making a polished product. Unlike even the best book talks, which tend to summarize central arguments and drive home key selling points, these decidedly “unplugged” conversations will emphasize intellectual and imaginative process: archival adventures and accidents; historiographical problems and opportunities; narrative choices and dilemmas. Think “Inside the Actor’s Studio” for students of Vast Early America.
We’re especially happy that Professors Carolyn Eastman and Sophie White have agreed to lead off the series with a conversation about their experiences in “Telling Unconventional Life Stories in Vast Early America.” Precisely because biography invites us to inhabit the lives and subjectivities of people in the past, it remains one of the primary ways that many of us first encounter history. I’m a case in point: the first book I ever checked out of a library was a biography of Molly Pitcher published by Bobbs-Merrill as part of their Childhood of Famous Americans series. And the genre retains considerable appeal even for seasoned scholars, as Doing History’s third season demonstrated. But the very conventions that give biography its appeal—a well-known subject, abundant documentation, clear narrative contours—aren’t available for the vast majority of the women and men we encounter in the archives. How can we get at their stories? And what can we learn from those stories, both about the past and about the process of writing history?
Enter Eastman and White, whose work sheds fascinating light on the lives of a remarkable collection of early Americans. Carolyn Eastman’s forthcoming Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity reconstructs the career of the ambitious, eccentric orator James Ogilvie. Mr. O spent most of his adult life on the move, performing speeches before paying audiences, establishing himself as a national celebrity, and, eventually, losing the public’s favor entirely. Sophie White’s prizewinning Voices of the Enslaved: Love, Labor, and Longing in French Louisiana mines criminal court records in eighteenth-century Louisiana to recover the words of enslaved women and men. Called to testify about crimes they were accused of, witnessed, or in some cases endured, they responded with stories about themselves—their histories, their labor, and the romantic and familial connections that structured their aspirations.
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