For some time now, historians of science--including those who transformed the field with their carefully wrought, local, micro-studies--have been lamenting the lack grand narratives. Nevertheless graduate students continue to be trained to drill deep, sacrificing breadth for depth. And even if and when junior scholars contemplate "going big," they find precious few examples to follow. Writing stories that transcend a single community, idea or even place, involves thinking differently about sources and about audience.
Big histories also require the historian to think differently about herself and her relations to other scholars, those whose local stories have slowly carved out the vast canyon that becomes recognized as a national treasure. I'm suggesting that the best big histories make visible the canyon and the river, they reinterpret the accretion of "small" but powerful studies without which such sweeping narratives cannot be well told.
This kind of metaphorical talk invites debate (so, bring it), but the reason I'm motivated to write about this at all is that I can't stop thinking about Jill Lepore's new book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (Knopf, 2012). Lepore, Chair of Harvard's History and Literature program, initially published many components of the book through her other gig as a staff writer at the New Yorker. Bound together, the whole is greater than the parts, a fantastic resource for thinking about what it means to write "big histories" for audiences comprised of our peers and other reading publics.
The narrative conceit is deceptively simple: tracing a shift in attention to life and death "from the library to the laboratory" over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. In doing so, Lepore tackles some massive questions about the consequences of the rise of experimental knowledge and the apparent displacement of humanistic approaches as central to ideas about life and death.
The form of the book is ontogenic, each chapter recapitulating a stage of human life in America. After some clever framing in terms of the history of the board game "The Mansion of Happiness," familiar to many more of us as "The Game of Life," she presents a critical reading of Lennart Nilsson's iconic photos of fetuses, moving on to debates over infant feeding, sex, marriage, work, parenting, aging, dying, and so on.
Few readers of AmericanScience will be surprised that Lepore makes evident that high and low forms of literature have shaped and been shaped by the apparent scientization of American culture. But, perhaps most intriguing to us practitioners is the note on history with which Lepore chooses to conclude.
Following an account of cryonics and a visit to a warehouse of frozen bodies (!) in a penultimate chapter titled "Resurrection," she writes, "Hiding between the covers of this book . . . lies a theory of history itself, and it is this: if history is the art of making an argument by telling a story about the dead, which is how I see it, the dead never die: they are merely forgotten or, especially if they are loved, remembered, quick as ever."
Against claims that the library--in this case, the archive--has become a kind of laboratory for making knowledge about the past, Lepore would have us remain attuned to the fact that the laboratory and its inhabitants have left rich libraries for understanding what it means to be human. In this project, her account is neither the first nor will it be the last. But it goes far in demonstrating that historians of science, medicine and technology are asking questions whose answers are of consequence beyond the bounds of our allied disciplines; there is still plenty of room to grow.