Review: A Midwife’s Tale

Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale was published in 1990, and achieved what sports coaches would call a complete victory. Its accolades included a Bancroft and a Pulitzer, along with the AHA’s Joan Kelly and John H. Dunning prizes. Favorable academic reviews were balanced with smashing commercial success, and the book remains a top-selling and widely recognized title.

I finished reading the book last month, and was quite impressed. Ulrich lays out the book into chronological chapters, each of which focus on a particular series of events in the life of Martha Ballard, a midwife who practiced in Hallowell, Maine. After printing several excerpts from the diary on which the book was based at the beginning of each chapter, Ulrich delves into analysis and discussion of the events, their context, and their meaning. Topics range from marital infidelity, the spread of rural debt, evolving (or devolving) medical practices, and the neighbor economy. Ulrich treats each of these subjects with a remarkably incisive and thorough exploration of how oftentimes sparse and measured words in a diary can open up windows into the world of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century New England.

Ulrich writes beautifully, and offers up a plethora of quotable passages ranging from the sage to the touching to the comedic. Included in this is the methodological advice that, “Opening a diary for the first time is like walking into a room full of strangers. The reader is advised to enjoy the company without trying to remember every name.” Meanwhile, when discussing rural debt, Ulrich writes, “Martha’s diary shifts the focus from mortgages and lawyers to wood boxes and sons, showing how family history shaped patterns of imprisonment in an era of political and social transformation…” This is a wonderful quote, and one that succinctly and powerfully makes the argument for the importance of social and family history.

I would argue that Ulrich has had as much of an impact on the field of US social history as any historian in the past twenty years. Social history has been taken seriously within the academy for years, but it has had a slow journey onto the bestseller bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. However, in Ulrich’s case, a great many people recognize the title of her book, which is a monumental achievement for any historical work, and it is made even more remarkable by the fact that it was published 18 years ago. Popular history books are dominated by the subject areas of “great man” biography, military (particularly Civil War and Revolutionary) history, and to a lesser degree politics and economics. To have achieved this level of commercial success with the general public while writing about a relatively obscure eighteenth-century rural woman is a remarkable achievement. Ulrich’s ultimate success was combining the scholarly and commercial potential for a work of social history, demonstrating that the bottom-up perspective can be told with equal degrees of academic thoroughness and popular appeal.

I enjoyed the book on a personal level for a variety of reasons. It dealt with much of the same subject matter as my thesis (social history, rural and neighbor economic patterns, etc.), and she used an empirical methodology that deeply appeals to me. While browsing online, I came across a great interview with Ulrich that spells out how she did much of her research. She took an incredibly disciplined and thorough approach to cataloging almost every aspect of the diary:

I began by counting things. The very thing that had attracted me to the diary in the first place was also the thing that made it difficult to work with. I mean there's just so much. The diary is a long accumulation of workaday entries. And so I had to find some way to get control of the information so that I could find patterns in it. I hit upon the idea of making up a little form, kind of a data collection form. (And this was in the days before personal computers). And I would go day by day for every other year of the diary, and I would tick off what was in each entry: baking or brewing, spinning or washing, or trading, sewing, mending, deliveries, general medical accounts, going to church, visitors, people coming for meals, etc. Using these sheets, I was able to count the incidence of virtually every activity mentioned in the diary.

When reading this, I couldn’t help but think what Ulrich could have accomplished if she had been conducting her research twenty years later with even a basic grasp of how to use text mining tools. She ended up only cataloging every other year to (understandably) “keep her sanity,” but writing a relatively simple program would have allowed for a far greater and faster analysis of such a huge collection of data. I’m not sure Ulrich could have purposefully given a better plug for the potential and power of digital history.

It is a testament perhaps to the influence and impact of scholars in social and women’s history (such as Ulrich) that I didn’t find the book to be ground-breaking in its subject matter. In the two decades since writing it, women’s history has shifted from a fringe focus to a widely accepted (albeit not fully mainstream) path. The idea of writing about a small-town midwife does not seem like a revolutionary approach within today’s academic landscape. Instead, I read A Midwife’s Tale for what it was: a phenomenally well-researched and well-written work that took an in-depth and refreshing perspective on life in the early American republic.