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In this long awaited volume, Paul Conkin, one of America's most distinguished intellectual historians, offers his commentary on almost every aspect of the American past. Delivered to a wide variety of audiences over more than a quarter of a century, these essays are simultaneously informal, profound, graceful, and self-revealing. A common theme shared by all the essays is the ambiguous results of our nation's transition from relatively homogeneous communities, villages, and regions to a cosmopolitan culture with ...
In this long awaited volume, Paul Conkin, one of America's most distinguished intellectual historians, offers his commentary on almost every aspect of the American past. Delivered to a wide variety of audiences over more than a quarter of a century, these essays are simultaneously informal, profound, graceful, and self-revealing. A common theme shared by all the essays is the ambiguous results of our nation's transition from relatively homogeneous communities, villages, and regions to a cosmopolitan culture with a centralized, regulatory welfare state, and an increasingly mobile and pluralistic population. The village's sense of local autonomy has all but disappeared in the face of these trends. With an almost melancholy sense of what has been lost, Conkin charts the strains and tensions that have marked this incredible transition. But Conkin is also acutely aware of the necessities that have fueled these changes, as well as the many benefits of the new order, ranging from an unprecedented level of affluence to the full citizenship gained by minorities. A reluctant Southerner, Conkin has not forgotten the exclusivity, intolerance, and repression that often mark provincial communities. Conkin reflects on the historians' craft and the influence of his own past on the subjects he studies. A Requiem for the American Village is infused with Conkin's razor sharp sense of historical memory and historical consciousness. From the foundations of American government to the tensions of contemporary cultural pluralism, Paul Conkin offers powerful insights not only about the tortured history of the South, but the promises and pitfalls of the American experiment.
As a Discipline
Throughout most of my career I have been fascinated with the analytical philosophy of history. This interest led to reviews, articles, and the second part of a widely used text. Roland Stromberg wrote the first half, a brief history of historical writing, and I wrote a final five chapters on the major issues in the philosophy of history. The second, and current, edition of this book is Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Forum Press, 1989).
I wrote the following, very short and whimsical, essay as an introduction to a Mellon Foundation seminar on the philosophy of history, offered here at Vanderbilt during two different summers. It reveals the possible clan-based origin of historical thinking. The second essay is a keynote address that I delivered at a conference at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, in 1978. It emphasizes the tensions between national and local history, and thus broaches some of the central themes of all the essays in this book. The theme of the conference, attended by local historians in Appalachia, was identical to the title of my paper: "Local History: A Mirror for American Values."
The First Historian
He lived thirty thousand years ago. Except in the summer, he lived with his clan in a cave in what is now southern France. He was an early Homo sapiens, a Cro-Magnon man, although of course he did not know that. The categories are ours, not his. Given theself-indulgent complacence we often give to the label Homo sapiens, he would rightly have relished it. His name until the time of this story, translated into English, was Short Legs. Subsequently he would gain the name of Tall Tales and would be known for miles around his home cave.
Short Legs and his clan, sometime in the rather recent past, had developed a true or symbolic language. They were not aware of this. They did not even have a name for "language." But they already had a working vocabulary of over a thousand words and had come to accept some complicated syntactical conventions—although they were not aware of these. They as yet had no grammarians. Gradually, during a past that stretched far back beyond their memory, and in a sense even beyond the reach of the type of verbalized memory they now possessed, the clan had elaborated upon a complex system of signals, richer and more varied and keyed to more types of conditioned response than even those of the crow. Thus they had developed an amazing ability to produce modulated sounds. In a process so gradual, so incremental, as to be beyond any awareness, even when they gained the linguistic tools for such awareness, the signals, keyed in each case to a specific response, began to take on more nuanced roles. Sounds became words, or symbols standing for objects—at first only specific objects, such as individuals, but gradually for whole classes of objects. Instead of a name for each bear, they began to refer to all such animals as bears. As the symbols became richer and more encompassing, and as the people augmented their language with words that referred to action, and qualified their symbols with other words that modified the meaning of class terms, the clan gained immense new power over their world. What we call language, and puzzle about endlessly, was not yet a puzzle to them. It made them self-conscious, able to distinguish themselves from the now named objects that surrounded them; but not for a long time would they make the tool—language—an object of contemplation, with all the wisdom, and all the foolishness, that such language awareness invites.
As sounds became symbols, language facilitated the success of the hunt and, on rare occasions, the outcome of battles with other clans. Evolving language was a wonderful tool for coordinating actions. It allowed a hunting party to relay detailed and nuanced instructions about the placement and movement of each stalker and of the prey. The kill grew exponentially. More important, it allowed the hunters, around the campfires in the evening, to plan the next day's hunt, to make specific assignments, gradually to work out specialized roles for each participant. It allowed them to evaluate the hunt of the day before, to home in on critical mistakes, to evaluate new options. It even led to more subtle details in their cave-side drawings, by which they now recorded heretofore unnoticed aspects of the hunt or unnoted details about the prey. Thus language began as a tool. It was justified by its success, as is any tool. If the reports about the past day's hunt enabled the clan to improve its kill, then they accepted such reports. We might ask questions about the truth of such reports, but not our ancient progenitors. They accepted language as a given.
Language soon served new uses, uses never anticipated or even remarked by those who enjoyed or suffered them. All animals have an imagination (they entertain fleeting images), but with language imagination took on a new, verbal form. In moments of repose, or even in dreams, the people of the clan began to rehearse new scenarios for the hunt, to imagine new ways of doing things, to entertain fantasies about themselves and other people. They began to ask why and to imagine answers to new questions. They began to people their world with hidden actors and agents, to see intent and purpose in the wind and the storms. They created spirits and gods to explain what happened, particularly in those areas where they were most helpless. They knew awe and suffered from new fears and insecurities. They became morbidly fascinated with self and, as an adjunct of self-awareness, began to suffer both shame and guilt. They gained a conscience. They also agonized about death. They became human.
Short Legs had a handicap. His legs were indeed dwarfed, and thus he was incapacitated in war and in hunting, although he tried to do his part. He seemed odd to his comrades, but he was not thereby stigmatized. Everyone assumed the gods had planned it this way, and they often stood in awe of him, particularly his talking. Language seemed his game, fantasy his compensation. As he grew older, he seemed to talk all his waking hours, droning on at times even when no one was listening. One evening, as the hunters ate their meat, and as the women and children hovered about, the young men began to talk about their exploits over the last few days and, of course, to boast about them. At this point Short Legs interrupted. In effect, this is what he said:
You have little of which to boast. The great hunts all took place in the distant past. I am an old man now. When I was a boy, the great hunts were not so remote. My father's father was then still alive, and he told me about the greatest hunt of them all. As a boy, he was part of it, and joined in the feasts that went on all winter and well into the springtime. This was the most successful hunt that our people ever enjoyed or, I suspect, that any people anywhere ever enjoyed. Nothing close to it has happened since, and most likely it never will. Your success last week was nothing compared to the great hunt. See there on the upper wall. That is the record of that great hunt. My grandfather helped draw all the figures you see every day but do not comprehend. I doubt that any of you know what those drawings mean. To you they are only marks on the wall, or pictures of bears and deer like those in all the other drawings on the wall, such as the one you boastful young men drew this evening. I know better. I can tell you what every detail in those drawings means. Gather round the pictures and listen to me as I interpret them for you, for I am going to tell you about the greatest hunt that ever happened and about the numerous ways that great hunt changed our lives, even all the way down to the present.
The people gathered around and were quiet, even the children. Short Legs was in his element. He told an elaborate story, with frequent references to subtle details in the drawings on the wall. They came alive for the audience, made sense, documented an epic story. Maybe Short Legs was not a careful historian. Maybe he added details never told him by his grandfather, or inferred much more than the drawings justified. But he claimed, and his audience believed, that the events he described had actually happened, and thus they gained all the import and significance he ascribed to them. He assumed the obligations of a historian, not just those of a storyteller. He had been telling stories for years, but he made them up. Most were fantastic. He had great skills in the telling. Other members of the tribes had recounted past exploits, drawn from personal memory. What was new in this case was his attempt to recover a past lost to immediate memory, a past evidenced by oral accounts and a complex drawing, and a past he now so interpreted as to display coherence and significance. Short Legs claimed to tell the full story of the great hunt. He deceived himself. He had to select and arrange the details of his story and, as a gifted storyteller, probably did this very well. He promised to extract the long-term significance of the great hunt, and this again had to involve a selective interest in only certain aspects of the subsequent history of the clan, whereas these subsequent events, in turn, helped determine what Short Legs included in his story. But such selectivity is a necessary aspect of any history, and Short Legs was naive only in not recognizing this.
Short Legs invented history. This turned out to be a momentous achievement for him. People who had laughed at his earlier stories now took him seriously. His purportedly true stories seemed terribly important. They helped give to his clan a great sense of confidence and pride. They now knew themselves to be heirs of those who conducted the greatest hunt of all time. Some of the young men now boasted of this and grew arrogant. Everyone wanted more such true stories. And in his own way Short Legs obliged. He had found his role in the clan as a much revered man of wisdom, one who alone could penetrate the lost secrets of the past. But Short Legs soon ran out of such stories. He found no other drawings with such potent meaning, could not find in his memories other such accounts from a grandparent. Such limits did not deter him, and thus he told more and more stories, claiming each to be true. He kept returning to the great hunt but, with each retelling, ventured new interpretations, each more imaginative than the last but at the same time more far-fetched. Soon he failed to persuade, and in his last years people began to refer to him as Tall Tales, in part out of respect for his ability as a storyteller, in part out of their contempt for his unjustified truth claims.
Short Legs invented history. He did not invent historiography. This innovation sprang from the skepticism of a young girl, Sweet Doe. She was not given to fantasy and simply found the tall tales of Tall Tales unbelievable. One evening, as everyone listened to Tall Tales pontificate about all the events leading up to the great hunt (he was still the best entertainment in the cave), Sweet Doe interrupted. In effect, she said the following:
I don't believe it. It ain't true. It could not be true. No one today can do some of the things you attribute to the great hunters. If no one can do such wondrous things today, then how is it that they could do them in the past? It makes no sense to me. And why should I believe you? Who else has such memories? I hear no such stories even from the elders who are as old as you. Why not? Why did they not hear the stories you tell? And what about the drawings? For your recent stories, you rarely refer to records on the wall. And even when you do, you interpret them in such fantastic ways as to leave me confused and unpersuaded. I think you have made up most of your stories. Unless you can find other old men who can vouch for your stories, and unless you can point to wall drawings that clearly and directly support your stories, I think you should shut up, or at least admit that your stories are untrue, entertaining as they may be. I have had my fill of Tall Tales.
With Sweet Doe the critical philosophy of history was born. We owe a debt of gratitude to Sweet Doe. Unfortunately, her clan never appreciated her skepticism. Of course, they knew that Tall Tales exaggerated or made up much of his history. But they treasured the identity that he had helped them fashion for themselves. They wanted to keep alive the story of the greatest hunt of all time, for it gave a special dignity and importance to their lives. In a sense, they were willingly living a lie, assuming an importance not justified by actual events. No matter Sweet Doe, in her innocent doubts, began to puncture this self-image. The clan soon fell into bitter debates about the past, or what we might call interpretations. At the center of it was the "Tall Tales thesis." Able young men soon had competing theories about the past, and the intellectual game went on without resolution, to the despair of the ordinary people, who were simply confused. Poor Sweet Doe. The clan leaders blamed the conflict on her and seriously considered banishing her from the cave. As you would expect, they had long since changed her name to Sour Doe.
Local History: A Mirror for
My sermon text comes from Ortega:
Man is not a thing ...; man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is ... history.... Man is not his body, which is a thing, nor his soul, psyche, conscience, or spirit, which is also a thing.... It is false to talk of a human nature.... Man is no thing, but a drama—his life, a pure and universal happening which happens to each one of us and in which each one in his turn is nothing but a happening.
Man is what has happened to him, what he has done. Other things might have happened to him, or have been done by him, but what did in fact happen to him and was done by him, this constitutes a relentless trajectory of experiences that he carries on his back as the vagabond his bundle of all he possesses. (Scattered excerpts from History As a System)
Our identity, as individuals or as communities, is ever fragile, open, in flux. Its only firm component is the cultural residue of our past, which lives on in us but which we may or may not recognize. Either way, this past conditions our development, our endless creation and recreation of ourselves. When our past is unknown, its influence is dictatorial, inescapable. When known, our multifaceted past confronts us as a suitor, often beguiling in its solicitations, all but magical in its revelations, yet open to critical evaluation. When we have correctly discerned our past, when we know ourselves, we feel most free, even though we can no more change that past than we can alter the laws of physics. The existing script allows judgment but not editing. The early chapters must remain just as they are. But, fortunately, the drama remains incomplete. We are composing additional chapters. And the better we understand the earlier chapters, the more we justifiably feel that we are the self-conscious arbiters of what we now write.
Man is not a thing. He has a symbolic language. He talks to others and endlessly to himself. We call this thinking. He lives in a world of meaning, which conditions practically all that he does. Unlike things, which often occur in clusters, or other animals, which often live in ordered societies, man alone lives in communities. That is, he lives in groups united by shared meanings and shared purposes. These meanings develop and endure through time. They make up a cumulative heritage. Because of language, humans endlessly but never conclusively define themselves in a context both of memory and of hope. Things also have histories. They endure through time. But they do not gain their identity from their past. Thus, only humans are their history. Their identity is always their peculiar heritage of memory and hope, of beliefs and preferences.
Because of language, humans do live in a world of things, and they are enormously blessed by this privilege. In a sense humans even fashion the objects of their world, although they do not create the experience from which they successfully abstract such objects. Out of the welter of experience, out of the vast, vague, nonspecific out there that they literally bump into, humans select various repetitious qualities and give a name to them. From vast globs of greenness they select some features and call them a "tree." These features are the essence or nature of any tree. Such objects are eternally just what they are. A tree is a tree is a tree. Therefore, trees are peculiarly manageable, predictable, as are all things. Because we have abstracted objects out of the richer continuities of experience, we have been able to establish many invariant relationships. We call the most systematic of these relationships sciences, and they are very useful. Only acculturated, language-using, concept-inventing subjects can create such sciences and order so many things. But obviously, logically, the human subject, the one who continually works out new concepts and thus identifies new things, cannot be a mere thing. A creator cannot be a creature.
This leads to an obvious lesson. Strangely, it is one that Western intellectuals no sooner learn than they forget and thus have to learn all over again. The lesson: There can be no science of humanity. Remember, humans have no defining nature, but only a history. For each person, that defining history is slightly different from all others. At any refined level of subtlety and detail, any history is quite local. Of course, any history of a rock is slightly different from that of any other rock. But the history of a rock does not define a rock, does not give it its identity. As if we were external gods, we have bestowed that identity. But as vulnerable subjects, we have to work endlessly at our own identity. The task is never done.
I do not mean by all this that nothing unites or relates humanity as a whole. Literally, almost all things relate to humans as a whole. Every thing—that is, every object with a set, defining essence or nature—is open to every person, although selective choice leads some people to objectify aspects of experience ignored by other people. A tree is a tree however many cultural barriers we cross, and however many varying linguistic codes communicate the image we intend by our English word "tree." Likewise, a human may be a part of many of his own objectifications—such as an ever more carefully elaborated world of matter, or an ever more precisely classified organic world. Thus, people everywhere have a common physiology. They also join other mammals in certain patterns of learning, tied to a common neurological base. This alone assures that people everywhere share similar constraints and similar animal needs. They share the frustrations of not being able to fly, short of technological props. If they are to continue to live, they all must eat. If their species is to survive, many of them must procreate.
Note the hypothetical, the "if." Already we confront meaning or culture. Some people, in the context of a cultural heritage, in their continuous creation of meaning and identity, choose celibacy and elevate it to a noble ideal. And a few people have willingly chosen death; they have sacrificed their life in behalf of an ideal. Culture can always override biological imperatives. People have few if any governing instincts. Their adult behavior is all learned. Much of the behavior of other animals is also learned. But only human learning involves shared meanings, cultural continuities, and self-conscious purposes. Without an instinctive base, without the sure guidance even of biological need, human behavior is open-ended, but open only within the limits of the possible. In both the physical and social sciences we chart those limits, the many boundaries set by things. But in so doing we never find any laws, any invariant regularities, that fully determine the path of cultural development in an individual or a community. It is quite possible that all the people on earth share a few common beliefs and preferences and thus exhibit the same culturally conditioned behavior. Their common biological equipment, plus the often similar circumstances that condition their behavior, suggest at least the possibility of such commonality. But no human nature necessitates it, and nothing necessitates that the common beliefs of today will remain common tomorrow. Indeed, most of us must eat. But we do it very differently, and even our eating can have enormous and variable cultural content, as in the rich, symbolic meaning of the Christian Eucharist.
These quite general comments may seem only a diversion from my topic. They are not. To confront the challenges, the possibilities, and the uses of local history, one must appreciate the unique subject matter and the unique uses of any human history. I have so carefully denied any distinctively human nature, and any science of humankind, in order to avoid a completely mistaken understanding of history, an understanding possibly suggested by one interpretation of my assigned topic. Recently it has been fashionable to view even local history as a means of testing purportedly general propositions about humans or their behavior. If a person were a thing, with the predictive behavior this allows, then local history could serve as a laboratory-like test for our social sciences. Armed with a hypothesis about normal and predictive political or economic behavior, one should be able to confirm it by numerous local cases or falsify it by a few local exceptions. (For example, many people in Boone clearly do not try to maximize their income, and thus we cannot assume income maximization as natural to humans). Indeed, I am persuaded that rigorous local histories will sooner or later falsify any and all pat theories about human nature, and thus any purported necessities in the area of culturally conditioned action (I obviously do not deny physiological regularities that are indeed open for generalization). If you are particularly offended by any presently fashionable theory about human nature, you might well launch a local inquiry for the expressed purpose of helping prove it false. But such a historical purpose—to falsify some general theory—rarely leads to any rigorous or carefully nuanced history. I cannot think of a weaker excuse for doing local history.
Then, you might ask, of what possible use is historical knowledge? Because historians do not explain, in the sense of laws and prediction, the behavior of things, their work might seem supremely useless. And, indeed, historical understanding leads to no new technology. It does not tell us how to do anything. It helps cure no diseases, bridge no rivers, produce no food, except as a history of past human effort may contain, quite incidentally to the purpose of the story, some information about medicine, engineering, or agriculture. Only the generalizing sciences concern things and thus tell us how to manage things. These sciences are doubly moral. They arm our purposes with power, even as they discipline our hopes by clarifying the possible. Historical knowledge clarifies not techniques or practical possibilities, but only who we are. History is the one empirical discipline that relates most closely to problems of identity and not to those of instrumental mastery—to ends and not to means.
Identity, I insist, is a vitally important issue. We literally look for ourselves in our past, or, by contrast, in the traditions of very different people. With such understanding we become more self-conscious and responsible actors on the human stage. In our present, unthoughted habits, we act out the conscious choices of our progenitors. So long as we remain in historical ignorance, we do this blindly. When influenced by mistaken caricatures of the past, by bad history, we indulge self-deceit and think we are who we are not, or we cast impious and unfair imprecations against our misunderstood parents. But with historical understanding we know the ends and purposes implicit in our daily acts. We therefore bring more and more of our conduct within the sphere of critical judgment. Historical understanding is thus a tool of moral discourse. Above all else, that is what it is for. By historical knowledge we may gain an added appreciation for our heritage, come to treasure our roots, and thereby deepen our commitments to existing beliefs and values. Historical knowledge is then very consoling. At times such a deepening or revival of our commitments is necessary even for sanity itself. But to know is to risk critical evaluation and repudiation. As we come to understand ourselves, as we compare our habits to what we now experience as good, we may not like much that we find. So be it. Our agonizing penance, which usually involves our parents' as well as our own transgressions, cannot help them, cannot erase the past, but it may be redemptive for us.
All human history is communal history, tied to the particularities of time, place, and culture. But some communities include millions of people—for example, all of us in the eroding but still recognizable Judeo-Christian West probably still share some common beliefs and pursue some common goals. That is a big community, yet spatially and temporally specific, local, parochial. At the other extreme is the individual. The most local history will always be biography. Most of us struggle with communities that stand somewhere between civilizations and individuals. I want to look at the problems of historians who move back and forth between two intermediate communities—that of a nation and that of a neighborhood. By the elusive and less than exact word "neighborhood," I refer to a reasonably distinct arena of primary, one-to-one human relationships, or, next to the family, the one most homogenous form of community, the one in which people share the largest number of meanings, beliefs, and values. In America we cannot apply this definition very easily. Our landscape now includes a mosaic of overlapping neighborhoods Fellow church members often send their children to different schools, vote in different precincts, loaf at different stores, work in different factories, mingle their remains in different cemeteries. It was not so in my youth. I grew up over in the next big hollow, in a community reasonably well defined by a Cumberland Presbyterian church, a nominally public but operationally parochial two-room school, and a single country store. Such distinct neighborhoods are now rare, and so-called local historians usually devote their attention to larger and less homogenous groups—as in a town or a county. But I can better clarify some crucial issues by keeping our focus upon such an ideal neighborhood.
In a trivial or truistic sense any neighborhood in the United States almost has to mirror some widely shared American values and thus, loosely, exemplify aspects of an American culture. All conceivable local beliefs or preferences, by occurring within America, help constitute the totality of American values, or at least the values affirmed by Americans. But such a compounding of all individual values confronts us with an unmanageable and nondiscriminating complexity. At another equally unpromising extreme, by "American values" we might mean only those literally shared by everyone in America. Any expected belief not present in a local neighborhood would reduce by that much the content of the label "American." Soon we would have no American values at all. The quest for such completely common values suggests a junior version of the social science game, with the neighborhood once again as a test case. I doubt that literally all Americans share even one carefully defined belief, or exemplify any one clear preference. Futility has so far marked our efforts to find some fully encompassing American culture or one clearly defined American character. I can think of no more puerile task than contriving one local inquiry after another to shoot down one or another purported American value. Here I am again objecting to strained and dubious claims of cultural generality, to assertions that all Americans do anything, at least anything not specific to their physique, such as sneezing and belching.
I find it more useful, although still perilous, to use the label "American" for typical American beliefs and values. Actually, historians usually deal not with generalizations but with types. Some types are representative (John's beliefs are typical because he believes what 95 percent of Americans believe); some express a median position (Joan's beliefs are typical because they stand midway between two extremes); some are ideal (such as the perfect Calvinist). In either case we have to confront, as honestly as we can, the exact claims we make in our appeal to the typical. Loose quantifiers are the bane of precise cultural analysis (the use of words such as "few," "some," "most," "many"). Generally, the representative type is a historian's substitute for true generality. Such types are highly predictive of individual belief or behavior and often justify our ignoring a dissenting few when we are dealing with large aggregates. But because the dissenting few may dominate our local neighborhood, we can never predicate a large whole on the basis of any local inquiry. Median or average types are treacherous, hard to vindicate empirically, and in no case predictive for any given individual or group of individuals.
The ideal type entails no empirical claim and offers no predictive assurance. It is a reference point, a valuable conceptual tool in one's search for clarity. But such ideal types usually help us only when they relate clearly to the actual beliefs and preferences of real people. If many Americans had not professed Calvinist beliefs, the ideal type would scarcely fit the needs of a historian. The neighborhood, as I earlier defined it, is an ideal type, because it is possible that no such neighborhoods now exist. Such a type is as useful in local history as in other fields of inquiry, but one must not confuse it with actualities. Your village may have plenty of professed Presbyterians but no ideal typical Calvinists.
Even this analysis of types opens up some fruitful perspectives on local history. A local historian may do little more than describe what has happened in her neighborhood, with an eye for a few continuities or genetic links. I hope even then that she tells the truth—that she is precise in her use of language, meticulous in her logical inferences, and rigorous in her use of evidence. If so, she may bring a valued form of self-understanding to her local audience, may deepen local pride or suggest areas for critical evaluation, but she will necessarily leave the home folks as parochial as before. But such honest and detailed local histories, because they do include even without identification much that is unique and particular, can provide outside readers with an array of suggestive comparisons and contrasts, making more subtle their consciousness of self and more sensitive their awareness of others. What such parochial history precludes is comparative judgment. Is this or that belief distinctive to the good citizens of Dogpatch, or fully shared by their neighbors in nearby villages, or by most Americans, or even by most Christians? At one moment a person may express a purely local peculiarity and thereby testify to his membership in a restricted and uniform neighborhood, and at the next moment spout some of the most conventional wisdom of the whole West. Our audience rightfully expects us, as historians, to distinguish the unique from the conventional. And that is not easy. In fact, I suspect this is the most difficult challenge facing local historians.
Usually (I started to say typically), local people make horrendously mistaken judgments about the extent of a community of meaning. They may claim the authority of all humankind for a very parochial religious conviction, even as they confidently and quite mistakenly insist that only people in their own valley correctly follow the phases of the moon in planting certain vegetables. The historian thus must know a great deal more than his subjects know, or he becomes captive to them. For example, in an excellent anthology of oral sources, Our Appalachia, the editors completely fail this test—they take the judgment of their interviewees and accept some quite local peculiarities as characteristic of central Appalachia as a whole.
For most local historians the nation is the most convenient comparative reference. I recommend it. Comparison among many small neighborhoods risks an enormous amount of unproductive effort. Few of us have the breadth and versatility to set our neighborhood in the context of all Western civilization, although at times, as in religion, we may identify some more encompassing commonalities. Thus, the United States as a whole is a good focus of comparison and one most easily open to us because national history has attracted so much historical effort. And, clearly, the representative type is the most likely focus of our comparison. If we can become conversant with the wider, more broadly shared aspects of the American experience, we then can use local history to exemplify, in a specific and concrete way, some of these almost common values. Conversely, an awareness of what is most conventional in the beliefs and values of a neighborhood helps clarify what is most exceptional.
The next level of refinement requires us to sort out what is regional and not just local. This is a problem that especially plagues efforts to understand southern Appalachia (what cultural content is distinctively Appalachian, what merely southern). But the hazards in either a national or a regional comparison are obvious. How can we know what beliefs are really consensual among 90 percent of Americans? How can we be sure that the various values reflected locally really mirror American values? Maybe we come to our local history with completely distorted images of what is American. Maybe the secondary sources we use for national history are all wrong, too rarely informed by detailed local histories. Maybe our working images of what are typical American values are either too loose and vague to have any content, or really express only certain verbally celebrated values that do not come close to guiding the actual conduct of Americans.
This leads me to a final, elusive, but possibly most promising interpretation of my topic—local history as a mirror of national values. Again, by a value I mean a personal preference, what object or conduct a person believes to be either good or desirable, what he approves, or what he wants or craves. Just as most behavior is habitual, so most of our preferences are so well established that we do not have an occasion to dwell on them, think about them, or evaluate them. They lie revealed in our choices and in what we do; we are most likely to recognize and defend them only when they face frustration or challenge. Let us call these living preferences our operative values. They usually overlap, but do not exactly duplicate, what I will call official values. I know the label is slippery. What I mean by it are evaluations, of objects and of behavior, that receive at least verbal endorsement by community leaders, by major opinion makers, or by those who claim or exert moral leadership, such as clergymen, teachers, and judges. One context for such official values is a church. A good Baptist knows that, as a Christian, he is supposed to love his god more than anything else. In an opinion survey he might even verbalize such a preference. At least in the context of worship, many people give verbal assent to such an overarching, if often vague, value. But are such normative values operative? Do they actually guide conduct? Surely not always. Many Baptists act as if they love spouses, or children, or even things more than their god. I hope this makes reasonably clear what I mean by official values: those that set the most publicized norms for a community.
We seem to have an array of such official values at the national level. As in ancient Israel, these values are at the heart of our sense of national identity, of our participation in not just American society, but an American community. Some even conceive of these official values as tenets of a civic religion, with its scripture in such foundational documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, its symbol in the flag, and its liturgy revealed by such civic holidays as the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, it is not easy to discover the exact content of these official national values, for the words that express them are always ambiguous. It is equally difficult to determine who honestly accepts these values, or who gives to them their authoritative status. Often they seem simply to float about our society like ghostly apparitions. At the level of verbal statement, it is easy to list some of those values: equal protection of law, due process in all criminal procedures, equal economic and educational opportunity, no governmental favoritism to any religion, the right to free speech, press, and assembly, government by law and not by personal influence, majority rule. Not only are these stated values not very clear, but by many understandings they often directly clash with each other. The rule of law, of established procedures or limits, often conflicts with the will of majorities.
To make the already elusive even more elusive, the effective meaning of many of these hallowed prescriptions is always in flux. Today they often identify very different values from those of the late eighteenth century, when at least the wording gave a highly moral tone to our war for independence and to our early governments. Americans, of course, are not distinctive in attributing a moral content to their nationhood. People in other countries endorse very different national ideals. They, as we, seek the same sense of moral rectitude in our country as in ourselves. And for a reason. We have to live with our nation's policies and suffer endless agony when these are morally repugnant to us.
In a sense the very elusiveness of such official values helps make them the most significant comparative perspective available to local historians. Such a comparison can respond to a range of very important questions, questions whose answers reveal a great deal not only about the local community but also about America as a whole. Did the past residents of a local neighborhood give verbal consent to these official values? Which ones? Was there local dissent? How did local people understand these values? How did such understanding change through time? Did such change precede, or lag behind, comparable shifts in meaning among national opinion makers? And, most important of all, did people locally go beyond verbal assent, beyond the conventional and expected cheerleading, and internalize such values? Did they make them operative, actually live by them? For example, I doubt that many people in homogenous neighborhoods, in the past or even close to the present, ever understood the implications of religious neutrality on the part of government, let alone demanded it of their local government. Reaction to the prayer decision, or continued and endless controversies over Christmas programs in schools, suggest how widespread is the resistance to such neutrality even by people who continue to affirm the separation of church and state. We already have abundant proof of how seldom any level of government has really offered equal protection of the laws to all people, and we suspect that very few local people have really wanted their police or courts to treat everyone equally. Community histories, for parts of Appalachia as much as for ethnic enclaves in large cities, over and over suggest that local politicians gain office and power by practical, legal, or extralegal services rendered, by jobs given, relatives aided, laws bent, and not by any adherence to principle or even to party platforms.
These examples support a suspicion of mine—that a significant tension exists between official national values and one crucial, if usually unvoiced but overarching, value that still seems to have strong local support. This is a preference for neighborhood homogeneity, for the opportunity to limit primary contact to people of similar beliefs and values. Some call this a sectarian impulse. It supports local exclusiveness, a comprehensive and often legalistic standard of acceptable behavior, large penalties on dissent or defiance, and at least a very insensitive response to outsiders. I do not want such characteristics to seem pejorative; if you so interpret them, you perhaps thereby reveal how fully you have internalized some presently official American values.
I want to come back again to the problem of identity. To function effectively, even to avoid insanity, we have to be someone, have some firm beliefs and commitments, come to terms with the continuities of our own past. These define us and set us apart from other people who do not share them. Given a sense of identity, and a developed ego, one has to judge others; whether one voices one's opinion or not, one either approves or condemns what other people do. In the same sense, a community is constituted by the shared beliefs and preferences of a group of people, by what they affirm and what they condemn. One who rejects some of those beliefs and preferences thereby separates oneself from such a community. The United States may approximate a community. That is, almost all Americans may share a few beliefs and preferences, and these commonalities justify the concept of a national community. But it is not a tight community, for the sharing touches only a few areas of political belief and commitment. Local communities are different. They are more total and thus more totalitarian. Again, I do not use the word in a pejorative sense, but descriptively. There the sharing may encompass all one's most basic beliefs and all one's important values. When it does so, it can be as comforting and supportive as a family, but also as repressive and exclusive. The narrow range of comprehensible, as well as permitted, dissent makes such a community frightening to outsiders. Yet for such a community to embrace complete tolerance, to accept any and all differences, literally to treat everyone equally, would be for it to commit suicide.
In this perspective most official national values at times threaten local communities. For such national values, even though not truly universal, are quite encompassing, now fitted to a very pluralistic society. They prescribe the same treatment for people of different beliefs, values, modes of life. They proscribe types of favoritism, preclude forms of discrimination. Yet favoritism and discrimination are prerequisites of a total community, as essential to Dogpatch as to a Chinese commune. In our early history both national commitments and federal law stopped short of most local differences. Only the federal government had to be neutral toward various religions; several states not only favored Christians but in New England gave taxes to one Christian sect. At the local level governments variously and unselfconsciously upheld all manner of local biases, and in laws and courts endlessly favored their own folk. Thus, at the national level we early embraced a degree of pluralistic equality, but often in order that local communities could remain exclusive. Since the Civil War we have altered course. In its aftermath we invented national citizenship and slowly extended federal protection to various local minorities, blacks being only the most conspicuous. Through laws, and in the courts, we have broken or weakened most legal forms of local favoritism and discrimination. Through effective education, dispensed by various communication media, opinion makers have also persuaded more and more local people to affirm the universalist themes of our civic morality. This has aided local minorities, but sometimes also eroded the formal and legal bases for secure neighborhood identity, for the very particularities—call them biases or prejudices if you wish—that in the past helped sustain tightly knit communities.
The tensions remain. I wonder how fully people of local communities even yet reflect official national values, not just verbally but in their behavior. Surely those of you involved in local history are the ones to search out those answers, for even when posed in a present context they beg an understanding of historical continuities. I recommend to you this very difficult task. To do it well, you must develop a sympathetic understanding of your subjects. You must catch the meaning, the coherence, the integrity, even the beauty of local systems of belief and value, and only then try to compare them to national values. Professional historians such as myself often lack a needed openness to local realities. We are mobile people, long since pulled away from any local neighborhood, even if we once lived in such a parochial context. Ironically, the strongest communal identity we feel beyond the family and perhaps our profession is the national one; the common beliefs and preferences that must bind us to other people are the near universal themes present in our official American values. Otherwise, we are all alone, a community of one. If we have contact with more local and total communities, it is usually as an outsider, as alien intruders, often more sensitive to local bias and repression than to the exact truth.
I have largely worked with national themes, or with people who identify principally with a national community. Thus, I am increasingly aware of how easily such people assume that official national values are all pervasive, and how horrified they can be when they find this is not so. National historians err when they move from some fashionable perspective on national values to easy assumptions about the parts, just as much as local historians err when they extrapolate from local actualities to generalizations about America as a whole.
Historians face a catch-22 situation. They must know larger wholes fully to understand the part. They must know the parts to understand the whole. Some refer to this as the hermeneutic circle. The escape takes not only time and effort, but an interactive dialogue between very local history and broad synthesis. Each has to mature together. Each has to check and enrich the other. If humans were things, if we could pin them down by their fixed nature, if we could grasp the laws that control them, our task would indeed be easy, and we might best approach human understanding from a purely local perspective. But as it is, we have to keep moving back and forth between large communities and small ones, continue seeking the complex relationships between them, and accept the hard fact that these relationships are not static but ever changing. Our task can never be completed. It could be only if humans were things. But who would have us give up our humanity, who would have us be mere things, just so we could get our scholarly work done, just so we could write the final chapter of human history?
Chapter 1 History As a Discipline Chapter 2 Creating New Communities Chapter 3 The Road to a Regulatory and Welfare State Chapter 4 First Principles of American Government Chapter 5 The Dilemmas of Cultural Pluralism