Revolutionary, my dear…

Marla R. Miller, Rebecca Dickinson, Independence for a New England Woman. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2014.

No, dear reader, you have not traveled into a new dimension (or year), but you are experiencing something unusual in reading commentary on a book that has been published next year.  We have entered that part of the year when occasionally publishing houses have books out ahead of the next year – it’s sort of like car makers.  Today’s book is part of the “Lives of American Women” series, edited by Carol Berkin and written by UMASS professor, Marla Miller.  The text arrived in my campus P.O. Box today, so I thought, “why not read it?”  An officious friend of mine pointed out that in his mind, this violated the tenets of my project – I thought about that comment a bit and respond, well, the book was on a shelf in my P.O. Box, and that shelf is mine so…technically…

Anyway, I read it, beginning with editor Berkin’s comments introducing us to some of the reasons why we should pay attention to women such as Rebecca Dickinson.  Dickinson did not fight in the American Revolution, nor publish pamphlets, nor write a history of America’s struggle for independence.  She did, however, have a long life that revealed “much about the turbulent era in which our nation was born; her life serves as a window onto the role played by ordinary women and men” (ix).  As an artisan, Dickinson was an important part of preindustrial America; as a lifetime single person, Dickinson battled both her own and outside societal pressure to marry and raise a family.

Two is better than one, for if one fall the other can lift him up.  But I must act my part alone. – Rebecca Dickinson, summer 1789

While I might not agree with some conclusions from the text (eg, that Dickinson was forging a new path for women in American society), the book provides the kind of opportunity for teachers and students of history that I like.  By exposing the life of an individual in American society, Pr. Miller has successfully given readers insight into, at the very least, the experience of a rural, skilled, female resident of the colonial northeast.  Miller has had a long relationship with Dickinson, reaching back just over 25 years when she was first exposed to Dickinson’s diary in connection with a summer fellowship at Historic Deerfield.  From that brief exposure grew an undergraduate thesis, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, several articles, and now two books (the other being The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution).

But diaries can be misleading: few of us would want to be remembered only for the things we wrote down in our most private moments, whether they were hours of worry, despair, or joy. – Marla Miller, xii

Miller’s point about diaries and journals is important.  Rebecca Dickinson’s life, or at least pieces of it, are available to us because her parents chose to educate her and because she chose to write at all.  The journal, as in depth as it is, is still not the entire story of her life, though it can make readers believe it to be a complete picture.  Miller hopes that the biography can show elements of Dickinson’s life journey.  Unfortunately, we learn early on that she began to destroy some of her older journals believing them to be “but poorly written….It served to amuse the mind, but nothing like the affairs of eternity” (February 1788).

Dickinson’s life is well contextualized as Miller seeks to quickly and clearly explain to readers the unusual nature of the eighteenth-century single woman.  Background on the settling of New England (including religious and political reasons for its settlement), the violent nature of life on its frontiers, specific rationales for settling in the Hatfield, MA region, religious upheaval of the Great Awakening, and the revolutionary period are all covered by Miller.  Besides learning that Dickinson’s grandmother had been born while held captive among native people (Canada Waite) we also come to understand the connections between her home community and the swirling changes associated with the Great Awakening.

In addition, Dickinson’s life is laid out against large events such as the revolution, in which her community was largely on the side of dissent, or Shays’ Rebellion, during which time Hatfield and most citizens were on the side of “law and order.”  In the seventh chapter, Miller uses several entries to explore some fascinating aspects of Dickinson’s views on issues like fornication, executing criminals, etc. (101-115).  Dickinson is achingly human as well.  Her life was guided by her absolute conviction spiritually and also painful and sorrowful as she wrote “how my lot fell by myself alone, how it came about that others and all the world in possession of children and friends and a house and homes while I was so odd as to sit her alone almost froze with the cold” (August 20, 1787, p.118).

This book would prove useful in courses that discuss the period including the American revolutionary period and era of the early republic.  Miller successfully balances details of Dickinson’s life with important American historical events.  The brevity of the book (and others in the series) is particularly useful for undergraduate and advanced high school student consumption.  Dickinson’s life choices as well as evidence as to how her community reacted to her provide fodder for class discussion that could easily evolve into comparative questions of modern society.  As I alluded to earlier, does Dickinson’s life truly sit as a new path for American women in the time after the early republic?  Probably not.  Her life, and the tale of how her story came to be told are quite useful for budding historians!

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