Thursday, July 9, 2009

Historian Wins Fellowship For Groundbreaking Book On Betsy Ross


Update: 2009-10 Patrick Henry Writing Fellow Marla Miller appears at Washington College to discuss the fascinating real life of Betsy Ross.

CHESTERTOWN, MD – Marla Miller, a rising star in the field of American history, has been awarded the 2009-10 Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship.

The Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship, provided by Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, offers a yearlong residency to authors doing innovative work on America's founding era and its legacy.

Miller, who directs the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, will spend the coming academic year at Washington College, where she will complete a groundbreaking biography of the famed flag-maker Betsy Ross.

“We’re thrilled at the prospect of having Marla Miller in Chestertown for the year,” said Adam Goodheart, the Starr Center’s Hodson Trust-Griswold Director. “Her passion for American history and artifacts shines through in her writing, and has also made her a very popular teacher at UMass. She will be a dynamic addition to the Washington College community.”

Despite Betsy Ross’s iconic status, there has never been any in-depth study of her life – nearly all the books on her have been fictional accounts or children’s books, partly because authors have thought there was not enough surviving information. Some have even assumed she was a wholly mythological figure. But Miller has unearthed new sources that shed light on the very real Ross and her world.

Miller’s book, which is under contract to be published by Henry Holt, looks not just at Ross’s long and eventful life (she outlived three husbands), but also the behind-the-scenes roles that women artisans played in the American Revolution, and how ordinary working-class people experienced the war.

Whether or not Ross sewed the first American flag, she was an ambitious and successful entrepreneur who provided banners, ensigns, standards and other military supplies to the American forces from the Revolutionary era through the War of 1812.

In addition to the book, Miller is helping to organize an exhibition at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, based on her research and set to open in the fall of 2010.

She also hopes to write two children’s books on Ross, one a biography and the other a fictional account based on the life of an African American child in her household.

Miller, an associate professor at UMass, is a committed advocate of history that reaches non-academic audiences – as well as history that can be touched as well as read. Her writing has been acclaimed for breathing life into the “things” of the past – from 18th-century petticoats to Revolutionary flags.

It was her scholarly work on other colonial seamstresses that inspired Miller to write a book on Ross, one that would appeal to the general public as well as historians. Her first book, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), received rave reviews. The historian Gloria Main called it “remarkably close to perfect,” and the Journal of American History lauded it for “reshaping our understanding of women’s place in the developing Atlantic world.”

Winner of the Millia Davenport Prize from the Costume Society of America, the book is a revision of Miller’s 1997 doctoral thesis, which was awarded the Organization of American Historians’ Lerner-Scott Prize for the Best Dissertation in Women’s History. She is a previous recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Winterthur Museum.

The Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship’s funding is permanently endowed as part of a $2.5 million challenge grant package that the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded through its nationwide “We the People” initiative, which is dedicated to strengthening the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture.

As part of the fellowship, Miller will live in a restored 1735 house in the heart of Chestertown's colonial historic district, and will teach a course at Washington College in the spring.
“I've long been aware of the innovative programming the Starr Center creates,” Miller said, “and it is one of the very few places where my interests in academic and public history are both supported in truly equal measure. I'm grateful for the time to write and think, but doubly excited to be around the forward-thinking energy the Center cultivates.”

Miller will deliver a public talk on her work on Wednesday, September 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Washington College’s Litrenta Lecture Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Launched by the Starr Center in 2008, the Patrick Henry Fellowship aims to encourage reflection on the links between American history and contemporary culture, and to foster the literary art of historical writing. It is co-sponsored by the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Washington College's center for literature and the creative arts. The Henry Fellowship complements the George Washington Book Prize, which is also administered by the Starr Center and awarded annually to an author whose work advances public understanding of the Revolution and its legacy.

Washington College acquired the Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence in January 2007 through a generous gift from the Barksdale-Dabney-Patrick Henry Family Foundation, established by the Nuttle family of Talbot County, direct descendants of the patriot Patrick Henry.

About the C.V. Starr Center

The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience explores our nation’s history – and particularly the legacy of its Founding era – in innovative ways. Through educational programs, scholarship, and public outreach, and especially by supporting and fostering the art of written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between past and present, and between the academic world and the public at large. From its base in the circa-1746 Custom House along Chestertown’s colonial waterfront, the Center also serves as a portal onto a world of opportunities for Washington College students. Its guiding principle is that now more than ever, a wider understanding of our shared past is fundamental to the continuing success of America’s democratic experiment. For more information on the Center and on the Patrick Henry Fellowships, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.

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