On "A Midwife's Tale": Analysis of Plot and Historical Method

Topics: History, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Diary Pages: 7 (2663 words) Published: March 4, 2013
Laurel Ulrich’s work, A Midwife’s Tale, was regarded at the time of its publication as a groundbreaking achievement in American social history, and it has stood the test of time, as it is still lauded and part of historical scholarship today. The work focuses on the extensive diary of Martha Ballard, a midwife who was born in Massachusetts in 1735 and experienced the rapidly changing environment that was eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America. It is remarkable to generally consider the historical events and forces that occurred during her lifetime and how they reverberated throughout society- the American Revolution, the westward-expanding frontier, et cetera. She began her diary in 1785 at the age of fifty, and continued it faithfully until just before her death in 1812. Ulrich acknowledges early on the gravitas of the fact that the diary survived to see the present, as well as establishing that a great deal can be explicated and divulged from it about early American life. Its existence was known by scholars for some time, but the ramifications of its contents were not adequately explored. Central to the thesis of Ulrich’s work is an extensive discussion of just what a treasure trove of historical insight this document provides; the most rudimentary quandaries as to why Martha Ballard decided to keep this diary and how she chronicles her experiences set the stage for a compelling, thorough, and fresh investigation of the medical profession, gender roles, sexual mores, social and familial structures, and most importantly, how people in this era dealt with the crises of their lives. It must be established that A Midwife’s Tale is a masterful work. It is only with vast historical expertise of early America borne in elegant prose that this work is so powerful. She creates a narrative that is grounded in the empirical methodology, drawing from not only Ballard’s diary, but an array of historical sources; however, she does not simply translate and pass on the events recorded. The rather terse excerpts pulled from Ballard’s extensive journal at the beginning of each chapter serve as a point of departure and empirical reinforcement to a greater discussion of early American society that follows. The painstaking research, beautiful writing, and ability to make compelling history by gleaning humanity and relevance from a vintage document are all present here and well-practiced. The story begins with selected passages dated August 1787. Ulrich lays the framework of the nature of Martha Ballard’s work, and uses that as a point of departure to explore the events of her life and conditions of her profession. There was a Scarlet Fever in the summer of 1787, and Ballard chronicles the devastation it wrought. However, the specter of death and disease are juxtaposed with and countered by the profession of midwifing, of bringing new life into the world. They served as physicians in less dire medical situations, and were also charged with bringing delivering infants and keeping the mother alive. Martha Ballard, it just so happens, was apt in her practice. The nature of the medical profession is laid bare, as physicians, like the midwife Ballard, had other duties as a neighbor and member of a family. The medical profession changes a great deal throughout the course of the work as Ulrich contends, with physicians usurping to a more important position in treating the ailing as the importance of the midwife waned. The metaphor of the “checkered cloth” proves effective in establishing a simple, aphoristic way to begin to explore the nature of gender roles and values in early frontier America. The worlds of men and women were separate, although they did overlap. However, it may come as a surprise to readers that women were not simple, domestic creatures, but rather agential in the finances of the household and community. Ulrich even stakes the possibility, or probability, that this diary was a tool for keeping record...
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