This interview was compiled from three interviews conducted by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt in September 1991, October 1993, and March 1994 in the course of writing the script for the film.
Q: Is it difficult researching and writing the history of a little-known woman? What issues did you confront in your work?
A: It was always a difficult balancing act. I
did not want to do a separatist woman's history. I wanted to understand
how important political and economic events related to the everyday events
in Martha's life. But it was hard to keep the background and foreground
in balance. And I wanted to keep Martha in the foreground.
A: History is based on sources, and it depends upon what gets saved and preserved. What gets saved are pimarily public documents. So history as traditionally taught and celebrated in the United States and elsewhere is the history of great deeds, the papers of presidents, the statues in town squares of the heroes of the Civil War and the Revolution...it's the big fat books about generals and kings, and a few queens, but it's usually not about ordinary people.
A: A lot of social history, which was an effort to counteract history as the extended shadow of rulers and presidents, made people anonymous. Social historians talked about cohorts, generations, regions, social structures...they weren't talking about individuals. I think one of the reasons A Midwife's Tale has gotten so much attention is that like the old fashioned histories, it's a biography, so it tells the story of a period through one life. But like the new social history, it's a community study. So it's a life in context -- a context filled up with a lot of patience, reconstruction and seeming minutia.
My effort to recover Martha Ballard's life was -- in large part -- an enterprise in recapturing the historical significance of "trivia."
With the data sheets, I could monitor Martha's days at home, her days away, and the days she went to church. And I would summarize the information at the end of each year. In 1792, for example, she was at home 192 days, but on ninety-two of those days she was at home, she had company. I never would have been able to figure that out without my data sheets. But by going back I could do that for ten or fifteen years, and then when there was a change, sometimes an abrupt change in her life, I began to look -- and try to understand why. So the counting was tedious and it was difficult. But it gave me patterns, it gave me the structure of her life and it gave me a framework for interpretation.
A: Yes. When I began to tally up my check marks, it was soon obvious to me that some entries in the diary (like church-going, births, or records of visitors) were very systematic and that others were erratic, seemingly random. The entries for laundry were especially puzzling! Could it be true that the Ballards had clean clothes four times in June of 1796, but that they had clean clothes only once in the three months of April, May and June of 1792? I set the problem aside and began the laborious task of identifying the helpers in Martha Ballard's household between 1784 and 1800. Suddenly the pattern fell into place. It was clear that Martha mentioned laundry more when SHE had to do it! She was less likely to mention laundry when someone else was around to do it.
And Martha's seemingly trivial struggles with washday helped me to unlock an important theme in the history of the northern rural economy -- the waxing and waning of household labor. When Martha had teenage girls at home who could do the wash, milk the cow, and prepare the food for the men, she was able to develop her midwifery practice to its capacity. But when the last of her daughters married, her life -- and her diary -- changed.
A: That took a while. At first I was focused on Martha's work -- and the patterns of her work. The endless lists of names frustrated me. So much of the diary can be reduced to a simple grammar of coming and going: "I went to mr Westons" (or Pollards or Howards, or Husseys or Fosters). "Mrs Savage (or Densmore or Burton or Hamlin or Woodward) came here." I had to figure out the relationship between these bland lists of names and the other entries in the diary. I had to understand what these names meant to Martha. I worked with many different kinds of records to figure out who these people were: census records, birth records, marriage records, tax lists, probate records, court records. It was standard community study methodology. I made lots and lots of lists. I cross-referenced information. But then I subordinated what I discovered to understanding of the life of one person.
Doing this work, I began to see what had eluded me. Names, I realized, were a kind of shorthand for social and economic transactions that literally held together Martha's world. Household economies survived only by spreading their debts, by weaving a complex web of obligation capable of sustaining the household in difficult times. Wives, as well as husbands, were engaged in financial exchanges beyond the household.
A: Yes. It wasn't enough to just know who was who in Martha's world. I also needed to know where they were. I needed to create a series of maps that would help me establish Martha's movements around the town, and her relationships to her neighbors. That was probably the most tedious research in the whole project. It involved working through the Kennebec County deeds page by page from 1760 to 1800. If you want to know where somebody's living in 1793 when Martha delivers their baby, you literally have to go back and find when they purchased that land and the only way...the only practical way to really do that for a whole town is just to take down every transaction.
I had a graduate student, Ed McCarron, who worked as my assistant. And he was sort of imprisoned in the Kennebec County courthouse for a whole summer. He worked with the books of county deeds. He had to record each transaction, for each lot, dating back to the original 1761 plot plan when the town was first laid out. And by building up page after page after page of those transactions, eventually he had a deed chain for every lot that we could locate on the various maps of Kennebec County. For example, he had a file on lot number 8 west side, and we could kind of zoom in on 1793, and ah hah, the McMasters were living there in 1793. Pretty soon I built up a sense of the geography of the place.
Q: When did you begin writing?
A: I didn't start writing the book for several years, although I wrote the occasional article while I was doing research. Many of the discoveries I made came in the writing process. One of the earliest was my understanding of laundry in the diary. I figured that out while I was writing an article for a volume on the new labor history of early America.
Lots of other stories also came together when I was writing. I think maybe what I'm saying here is that the act of writing is an act of discovery. It certainly is for me. I've never been the kind of historian who sits and writes a detailed outline. I have colleagues who do that, you know, and they know what their argument is and it's just a matter of getting it clearly down. But for me, the richest discoveries about the material have almost always come in the act of trying to write about it.
A: In the book I wanted to take seriously the things that have been dismissed as trivia, like washing. So when I did get to writing about those things, I was very deliberate about it. I mean that I took the thing Martha hated the most and tried to literally balance it with the most traditional historical topic in the book, the post-revolutionary rural revolts with men dressed up as Indians attacking Martha's husband in the woods. I tried to take the most trivial thing, laundry, and make it hold its weight against Ephraim being shot at. I was playing around with story telling, but it was also an interpretive statement.
It was a chapter about his and hers --her work, his work-- and it was about a lot more than wash day. But I needed something to structure it, to give some sort of unity to her story. His story was easier because it had a climax and it was more traditional. It would have been very easy to let that public story overwhelm the domestic story or to see it as separate. But I didn't want to. I struggled with it.
When I was writing I would continually use Martha's entries as my anchor. I always went back to something in the diary because that gave the story a unity.
A: I work best early in the morning -- before I've re-entered my own life. Somehow the imaginary part of it...it's hard...I think writing is the hardest work in the world. I know people have very, very different writing processes, but my writing process is very much to go to bed with the problem and to wake up with the solution. My primary mode is that period from the time I awaken until whenever I'm forced to re-enter the world.
A: The most exciting was to come up with a way of structuring the chapter on delivery and childbirth. It was the hardest chapter to write in many ways. Boy, it took me a long time to write that chapter. It just drove me crazy, because it was such a huge topic. And I felt overwhelmed by what I didn't know -- and about my inability to answer the questions everybody wanted answered -- like was she an interventionist? Those things are so much part of the literature and part of the contemporary arguments among practitioners. And the breakthrough for me was that I had to conceive of delivery the way Martha did. I had to think about it in social rather than biological terms. ((KBKBKB: link to this chapter?????)
Q: How did you figure that out?
A: I think I found it out by knocking my head against the problem and realizing I had been there before -- and that the solution usually was to try to see events as Martha did rather than as I wanted to. I wanted to be able to give a description of what she did during deliveries...you know, the physical details, describing a birth the way a modern description of birth would do. And the breakthrough was to look at her language, which turned out to be about the journeys and about the women gathering. There were these formulaic phrases in the diary like "Called the women." And then I thought, well, I can play on the notion of the stages of labor and so on, and just use that as a metaphor for the social stages of delivery.
It really felt good when I found the ground to stand on. And then the chapter came together, and I could write it.
A: Yes -- I did a lot of re-writing.
Q: And how did you do it?
A: I had to free myself from Martha's voice and
I had to cut out a lot of what I'd written about the political context
(things I could have gone on and on about). It was a slow process. I'm
a slow writer. I can spend a week on a paragraph.
Q: What was it like for your family, living with Martha for the eight years while you were writing the book?
A: Martha became a kind of personage in the house. My husband thought he lived with Martha, too. And you know, it can be a burden to live with a character like that. She's so powerful and strong and self-sacrificial. And I'd wonder, "What would Martha think of me?"
A: I think I captured the diary personality, but I am not sure about the human personality behind the diary. I don't know whether she was loquacious. I don't know a whole lot about her relationship with her husband. There are so many things I'd like to know, and I'd LOVE to hear her speak.
But I really think I got pretty close to the structure of her work. And
I think I must have gotten pretty close to the flow of people in and out,
because that was important to her.
Q: What do you think Martha would make of all the attention her life has gotten since your book came out?
A: Well, I've pondered that. I think she would
diminish the importance of her own life, that she might find the publicity
threatening. I mean...it's threatening to me to be celebrated. There's
a little bit of that, you know, "women are to be seen and not heard"
in me. And there's a whole lot of that in Martha. So on one level I think
she would dismiss the book and not understand it and find it inappropriate.
But on the other hand, she kept the diary. So there's a part of me that
says although she might not admit it, I think she would have to be glad.