Looking Back at Looking Back

A few days ago while working on a new book, I needed some information on eighteenth-century men and women who left their spouses and turned to my first book Breaking the Bonds. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really read through it. It was a strange feeling to look back at prose I wrote over twenty years ago, but I was pleased to find I still thought it was good. Sigh of relief, right?

As I read about the unhappy lives of people who died long ago, I thought back about my own life.  I was reading history, but I was thinking about my own history—who I was, how I’ve changed, and how the process of research and writing has changed. Breaking the Bonds started as my doctoral dissertation, and because of that, it is the book I spent the most time researching and writing. I wrote each chapter multiple times and presented each one to professors, other grad students, and seminar groups. I presented versions of some chapters to various professional associations.

When I began the research for this book, few documents or collections were digitized. I didn’t do any of the research online or take notes on my computer. (I had one of the first Apple computer models then—a desk top, of course.) I went to archives with pencils (no pens allowed), index cards, and legal pads.

I was the first historian to really use and write about some of the documents and collections I unearthed during my research, although since that time, other, more celebrated, historians have gone on to discuss them. I was fortunate to be at the right place and the right time as archivists were processing some collections, and several graciously shared papers with me or allowed me to go through them before they were indexed. Those who have never visited archives might not realize how papers can become “buried” in stacks of other papers or within dusty volumes. Although I love the ease of finding and searching through online documents—without having to actually get dressed or worry about driving—there is something special about seeing and holding the actual letter someone in the past wrote to a friend, relative, or official. And something exhilarating about discovering a document that proves a point you want to make or leads you down a new path.

 I was a different person when I did the research for Breaking the Bonds. If I wrote the book now, it would be a different book. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

Being a full-time graduate student is like nothing else. You are in an artificial world where your job is to read, write, and research, and then talk about it. All the time. Not joking. All the time.  It was a fun, exciting, and scary world to me. At the beginning of my grad school days, I was a twenty-something, but I was naïve and looked younger than I was. I always got carded if I went to a bar. Nearly every Friday night, my math teacher husband and I got together with other young married couples–who were not historians or grad students. We ate dollar hoagies (can you imagine?), or occasionally splurged on pizza or Chinese food. They would ask me what interesting stories I had come across in my research. I’d regale them with the pathos and sexual exploits of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Pennsylvanians, such as the woman who warmed one of her stockings and then dangled it in front of her lover before he could “get it up.” (Interested? It’s in the book!)

I was probably attempting to look professional.

I was probably attempting to look professional.

By the time I finished the dissertation, I had a baby daughter. Right before the book went to press, I gave birth to our second daughter (finishing the index just in time). Now both the babies are grown, and I’ve written and edited many books. I’m a different person. I’m probably still naïve, but I no longer get carded.

As I re-read Breaking the Bonds, I thought about how the world has changed since the eighteenth-century. And how I have changed since I wrote the book. At the same time, much in the world remains the same—people fall in love and lust, have children, enjoy eating and drinking with friends, gossip, and do cruel and horrible things to one another.

 Today I will reenact my grad school days. I told my husband that when I was in grad school I used to read a book in a day and write a review essay about it all the time. The book review I agreed to write for a major journal isn’t due until Wednesday. No problem. I guess I should get started though. Any second now. Wish me luck.

 Thanks for reading!

Merril