About every century, Phil Goldstein once observed, somebody comes along who changes the way everyone else approaches a particular field. He points out some obvious examples: Einstein and his relativistic physics, Joyce and his reinventing the novel, et al. Whether they change the world directly or through the works of their advocates, the contributions of these influentials diffuse across their fields almost universally. The historian Robert A. Gross is one such influential.
Without his approach to the historical monograph as a model, much of modern historical chronicling would look completely different. Alan Taylor, in his introduction to Gross’s history of pre-revolution Concord, goes so far as to assert that his own books would never have been written if it had not been for the readable, innovative Grossian model.
Gross’s approach to history has two facets: the combination of social and political history and the use of biological narrative. According to Taylor, the former facet transcends the limitations of earlier historical approaches, which rely entirely on a social or political models of history; and the latter facet, Gross’s use of biographical narrative, yields general historical conclusions from personal, specific details.
Take for just one example the social and political conflict within the church of Concord just before the decade of the American revolution. In the mid-1760s Dr. Joseph Lee, the biggest landowner in town, was denied membership to the local congregation. Superficially, Gross’s narrative appears to depict a simple social issue; however, it makes a turn and points out that without church membership, Lee’s hopes for political leadership eventually dimmed. According to Gross, “Lee’s campaign went beyond the matter of church admissions [because] after March 1771, Lee and his friends were not only outsiders in religion but of political office as well.” The historian seamlessly connects the social and political; and, more importantly, he uses the specifics of Lee’s conflict to represent a general historical fact—in this case, that pre-revolution Concord was a town “rapidly losing its moral center.”
Taylor claims that it is Gross’s sequence of narration from particular to general that makes his model so unique. “[He] presents capsule biographies that build toward his argument—instead of simply taking them on as examples to support assertions already made.”
The revolution-stricken and, consequently, united Concord would again dissolve into its backwardness and division. Though Joseph Lee, at the age of sixty-nine, eventually overcame his social and political shunning and was admitted into the church, his triumph was unique; most of the conflicts in Concord remained unresolved and the backwardness simply recrudesced. It would be a few generations before new economic independence allowed for the foundation of republican democracy—generations that Gross describes in specific, and, therefore—ironically—general detail.
Because of its very style, this book is not only a read worth the attention of any casual history fan; it is also a template for a modern approach to writing the historical monograph. It is hard to imagine, for example, Walter Johnson’s depiction of the New Orleans slave market without the Grossian approach. What would Alan Taylor have done without it? “The ‘new’ model of history," writes Taylor, "will continue to shift with the years, but a few books will endure because of their insightful and sympathetic engagement with the tragedy and comedy of human life. One such book is The Minutemen and Their World.”
The Minutemen and Their World by Robert A. Gross
Hill and Wang, 1976
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