Chestertown – Marla R. Miller, newly arrived in Chestertown for a year’s residence as Washington College’s 2009-2010 Patrick Henry Writing Fellow, will unwrap the mysteries surrounding the life of the craftswoman Elizabeth Griscom Ross – better known to the world as Betsy Ross – on Wednesday, September 16, 2009, at 7:30 p.m. in Litrenta Lecture Hall.
Americans love Betsy Ross. In the pantheon of Revolutionary heroes and heroines, she stands proudly at George Washington’s side, offering up her 13-star flag. A quarter of a million people visit her Philadelphia home every year. She has her own Pez head. But this popular fame has not won Ross much scholarly attention.
Despite her 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, perhaps the first historian to suspect that there’s actually more – not less – to Ross than the legend, has unearthed new sources that shed light on a very real woman and her world.
The Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship, provided by Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and supported by the Rose O’Neill Literary House, offers a yearlong residency to authors doing innovative work on America’s founding era and its legacy.
During her sojourn as a visiting scholar at Washington College, Miller will continue working on what promises to be the most groundbreaking book ever on Betsy Ross. The 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, Associate Professor and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts, is a previous recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Winterthur Museum. 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.”
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 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.
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.
Miller’s September 16 lecture, “Betsy Ross: The Life Behind the Legend,” offers a unique opportunity to peek inside the process of researching a major work of history. A book signing and reception will follow; admission is free and open to the public. Litrenta Lecture Hall is located in the John S. Toll Science Center.
About the C.V. Starr CenterThe 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.