Interview: Marla Miller
Marla Miller, Professor of History and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, recently published Betsy Ross and the Making of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2010). The book, the first full scholarly treatment of Betsy Ross and her world, has received much attention and rave reviews (“incandescent,” “stupendous,” “compelling,” “authoritative”). Last year the book was one of only three finalists for the prestigious Cundill International Prize in History at McGill University, “the world’s largest non-fiction historical literature prize.” Associate chair Jay Smith recently caught up with professor Miller to ask some questions about her time in Chapel Hill—she received her Ph.D. at UNC in 1997—her relationship with the story of Betsy Ross, and her evolving interests as an historian of America’s craftswomen.
JS: I’m curious: how do you account for the fact that you’re the first person to write a full-blown biography of Betsy Ross, this treasured national icon “known” by school children across America?
MM: It has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. By the time women’s history emerged as an area of scholarly inquiry, Betsy Ross had become largely a cartoon character in popular culture—the salt to George Washington’s pepper—and not perceived as an appropriate subject for serious historical study. No young scholar looking to establish herself in this emerging field would have taken the topic on. But much has changed in the intervening decades, however, and that particular risk is no longer present.
Of course it’s significant too that Betsy Ross was not famous in her lifetime, and so no papers—no letters, journals, ledgers or anything else like that—were preserved. Recovering her life in many ways had to wait until the development of the powerful electronic tools historians now use to conduct their work. I can consult online finding aids to learn what is in archival collections around the nation without traveling and doing the sifting myself, I can be in email contact with curators and archivists around the world, and I can harness the search engines that drive databases like Early American Imprints to find material I wouldn’t have lived long enough to discover before the advent of these resources. And so, to cite just a couple of examples, keyword searching led me to obituaries of Betsy’s husband John Claypoole not just in Pennsylvania and New Jersey newspapers, as I would have expected, but all up and down the east coast, in places it would never have occurred to me to check. One evening I found a painting of one of Betsy’s relatives through an online exhibit and found myself in touch with an Australian collector of portrait miniatures via email by morning. Those kinds of things weren’t conceivable even a decade ago.
JS: Did your proximity to the heartland of the American Revolution have any effect at all on your choice of Betsy Ross as a research subject? If you had been teaching in, say, Idaho or Texas, do you suppose you might have chosen some other topic to explore?
MM: Oh, that’s an interesting question, but I don’t think so. I think it’s more my proximity to pop culture that explains it. I’ve always been interested in the ways history makes it into everyday lives in dishes and decanters. The passage in my first book that got me thinking about Betsy Ross follows a passage on Mattel’s Colonial Barbie—both as part of a larger discussion of the sources that shape popular historical imagination about women’s lives in the past, and the ways in which the ubiquitous images of mop-capped women sewing and spinning has the effect of flattening what was once a rich and complex female economy into almost a caricature of early American housewifery. So the next thing I knew I was looking at Betsy Ross Pez heads and Halloween costumes, wondering what to make of it all.
JS: You finished your degree at UNC in 1997, and Betsy Ross and the Making of America is not your first book. You’ve obviously continued to grow and mature as a scholar since leaving Chapel Hill. Were any of the seeds of this most recent book planted years ago while you were in training at UNC? In other words, can we steal any of the credit for your achievement?! Who, during your formative years at UNC, played the most important roles in your intellectual development?
MM: I had the great good fortune to have several terrific mentors at UNC, including my co-advisors Jacquelyn Hall and John Nelson, but also Judith Bennett [now at USC], Leon Fink [University of Illinois-Chicago], and Harry Watson. Certainly my approach now to the rigorous use of evidence is grounded in the work of all those seminars. Of course Jacquelyn and John were particularly important—not just because they were each so very supportive and nurturing, but because their own scholarship is so wonderfully humane. The respect with which they treat their subjects, whether they are mill hands from the twentieth-century south or Anglican parishoners in colonial Virginia, modeled a distinct scholarly demeanor that has been really important to me as a historian.
Also, I was so terribly shy in graduate school, and Judith, Leon and Harry were so patient with that; I’m still grateful to them for allowing me to work along in my own quiet way (and now that I train graduate students and lead seminars of my own, I’m more grateful still). I also have to give a shout out to my classmates, who were every bit as important to my intellectual growth as anyone else. Laura Moore had, and still has, a profound effect on the way I think; she’s a brilliant editor, and very little of my work then or now is absent her influence (she nicely agreed to read the whole of the Betsy Ross manuscript at the end of the writing process, and every comment improved the final pages immeasurably). Houston Roberson, Robert Tinkler, and the members of my dissertation writing group Paula Michaels and Betsy Hemenway also were instrumental in my graduate training, and Anne Whisnant continues to be one of my closest intellectual colleagues yet today. The whole graduate program was so collegial; I think I learned there how to share my own work, and how to read the work of others, with compassion and openness.
JS: What are your fondest memories of this place?
MM: My fondest memories . . . that’s a pretty long list. But close to the top are the many, many hours spent in Carrboro’s fine coffee shops—principally Elmo’s and Weaver Street Market. I also have happy memories of the regular rendezvous at Davis Library when friends studying there met up at the circulation desk and headed out for a chocolate break; those Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups always kept me going for another couple of hours.
JS: Looking back, considering the trajectory you’ve traced to this point, what has been most consistent in your scholarly approach to the American past and what has changed?
MM: It’s funny because I wouldn’t have thought of myself this way and still don’t, all evidence to the contrary, but much of my work is one way or another biographical. My M.A. thesis at UNC was a study based on the diary of Rebecca Dickinson (her life as a never-married woman in the early America republic), and then Dickinson became one of four women whose lives ground the four central chapters of my first book. For whatever reason, I like to dig very, very deep and try to paint rich pictures of small places.
I suppose this is reflected in my work with material culture as well. During the writing of Betsy Ross, I had to understand her work in the upholstery trades, and I became utterly fascinated with the making of mattresses—not just the construction of the final product, but where the hair was harvested, how it was processed, the sources of feathers in Ireland and the Pennsylvania countryside . . . Like a two-year-old that always asks “why,” I’m always asking “but what did it mean to do that, and that, and that.” I think as someone with fairly limited domestic skills myself, I’m just endlessly fascinated by people who know how to make things.
JS: The writing style of the Betsy Ross book is accessible and engaging throughout. You have a real gift for storytelling. How did you approach the writing process this time around? Does the prose in this book reflect your natural “voice,” or do you find it somehow “easier” to talk to, and write for, fellow specialists? Have you found over the years that you have different voices for different audiences, or do you strive for consistency of style regardless of audience?
MM: Oh, that’s very nice of you to say. Sometimes I felt like this book in particular was writing itself. It all came strangely easily. But also, I’ve thought a lot about writing for a long time, and feel like I started cultivating some good habits at UNC. I now tell my own students something that Professor [William] Leuchtenburg said while I was a student there—that as you are poring over archival records, you should always notice the weather. And I think it was Jacquelyn who first helped me begin to notice individual words; I remember (and I remember this as something she suggested to me) starting little notebooks about words when I was in graduate school—words to remember, to look up, to avoid. And Judith Bennett, too, helped me summon the courage we all need to start developing our own point of view; I remember an essay I wrote for her Comparative Women’s History course that opened with a little local scene I’d witnessed that seemed connected to the distant past, and feeling like I was beginning to find, for the first time, my own voice as a writer.
Also, I keep a stack of books around that inspire me in different ways—books that represent in one way or another the voice I’d like to have—and I just dip into them when I feel like I’m losing my way. When I was working on Betsy Ross I was very much influenced by Stephen Fry’s beautiful Ode Less Traveled, but also the quite-different work of Mary Roach. Both of them address readers directly, which is a technique I have really enjoyed. And I read a fair amount of poetry. I’ve largely given up on novels, because I’m just too sleepy by the end of the day to make much progress in them, but there’s always time for a sonnet or two, and the ways poets use language I think helps me from getting into ruts in my own prose, though I have to concede the overuse of the semi-colon, as well as an overfondness for reflexive pronouns.
JS: You’ll obviously be basking in the glow of this book’s great success for some time, but . . . tell us what you have in mind for your next book.
MM: I like to keep a number of irons in the fire, but a couple of things are in the works. One is a look at women, work and landscape and the changing social relations in the early republic, a microhistory of Hadley, Massachusetts, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. And then, in another direction entirely, I’m picking up a project I laid down some years ago, after I spent a year processing the papers of Gloria Steinem. I’ve read all of the 20,000+ letters that American women have sent Steinem since about 1968, and am working on developing them into a book that tracks the women’s movement from the perspective of the women who watched it unfold on the Phil Donohue show. It’s tentatively titled "Dear Gloria: Letters from the Women’s Movement." It seems a far cry from Betsy Ross, but as one of my students here pointed out, it’s just Revolution of a different sort.