The Newberry Seminar in Early American History, co-sponsored by the University of Chicago, DePaul University, The University of Illinois at Chicago, Northern Illinois University, and Northwestern University present:
"Reading Through Poverty's Veil: Memory, Myth, and History in an Autobiography of Early-American Rural Life"
Ian McGiver, University of Chicago October 25, 2001, 3:30 pm - 5:30 pm
This paper examines the construction and reception of the autobiography of Henry Conklin, whose poor, highly transient family bounced across the marginal uplands of the New York backcountry during the early nineteenth century. Historians have celebrated Conklin's autobiography, which he wrote as an older man in the 1890s, as a rare point of entry into the otherwise mostly invisible world of early-American rural poverty. They consider his memoir to be an accurate account of one family's failed efforts to obtain a landed competence on the backwater frontiers of the Northeast. This paper demonstrates, however, that although Conklin's facts are largely accurate, his interpretation of the evidence of own past is skewed by the historical assumptions and the political and cultural requirements of late nineteenth-century American nationalism. Conklin's modern readers agree with his interpretations because they operate under the same set of historical assumptions that Conklin did. This paper argue that the Conklin family's highly transient behavior was not the result of a fruitless struggle in pursuit of the agrarian dream. Rather it was the case that, despite historians' beliefs to the contrary, the Conklins were self-conscious members of a semi-independent roving rural proletariat. As such, this argument points the way toward a more complex portrait of life in the early American rural countryside.
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Scholl Center for Family and Community History
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