Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local Historyby Joseph A. Amato
Joseph A. Amato proposes a bold and innovative approach to writing local history in this imaginative, wide-ranging, and deeply engaging exploration of the meaning of place and home. Arguing that people of every place and time deserve a history, Amato draws on his background as a European cultural historian and a prolific writer of local history to explore… See more details below
Joseph A. Amato proposes a bold and innovative approach to writing local history in this imaginative, wide-ranging, and deeply engaging exploration of the meaning of place and home. Arguing that people of every place and time deserve a history, Amato draws on his background as a European cultural historian and a prolific writer of local history to explore such topics as the history of cleanliness, sound, anger, madness, the clandestine, and the environment in southwestern Minnesota. While dedicated to the unique experiences of a place, his lively work demonstrates that contemporary local history provides a vital link for understanding the relation between immediate experience and the metamorphosis of the world at large. In an era of encompassing forces and global sensibilities, Rethinking Home advocates the power of local history to revivify the individual, the concrete, and the particular. This singular book offers fresh perspectives, themes, and approaches for energizing local history at a time when the very notion of place is in jeopardy.
Amato explains how local historians shape their work around objects we can touch and institutions we have directly experienced. For them, theory always gives way to facts. His vivid portraits of individual people, places, situations, and cases (which include murders, crop scams, and taking custody of the law) are joined to local illustrations of the use of environmental and ecological history. This book also puts local history in the service of contemporary history with the examination of recent demographic, social, and cultural transformations. Critical concluding chapters on politics and literatureespecially Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and Longfellow's Hiawathashow how metaphor and myth invent, distort, and hold captive local towns, peoples, and places.
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Rethinking HomeA Case for Writing Local History
By Joseph A. Amato
The University of California PressCopyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
IntroductionThe Concept and the Practitioners of Local History
This book is neither a manual nor a guide to writing local history; nor is it a theoretical treatise on the nature of local history. Instead, it is intended as a book that evokes fresh themes for and alternative ways of writing about home. In an era when national and international forces hold sway everywhere, I try to foster a passion for the local, for reviving those particular people, places, and events past that don't demand but nevertheless need our careful attention.
I have drawn this material from two decades of teaching at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota, and from my writing and other works on southwestern Minnesota published by the Society for the Study of Local and Regional History and my own Crossings Press. While at times I write of the rural world at large, I more often focus specifically on the northern prairie, which lies between the Midwest and the Great Plains.
A theme for this book is the transformation of the countryside. Through industrial, commercial, and democratic forces, contemporary civilization has metamorphosed the landscapes andpeoples it has touched. Its settlement of the prairie occurred at the end of the Civil War with the coming of the railroad. Settlement meant the digging of wells, the draining of wetlands, the building of bridges and dams, and later the construction of water and sewage systems. Additionally, settlement brought churches, schools, newspapers, police, and multitudes of peoples with aspirations to have what "every civilized person and place should have."
Each chapter of this book forms a reflection on civilization's mounting control of waters and minds. My initial chapters explore civilization's shaping of natural and human environments. Then I explore in succession the promise of new histories of the senses, emotions, the clandestine, and the irrational. I conclude with an examination of literature and ideologies as conscious creations of the countryside. I draw my examples primarily from the region of southwestern Minnesota, which spares the reader a constant change of referent while allowing me the advantage of drawing on my own writing and knowledge of a particular place.
At points I do refer to other regions in order to suggest the applicability of this book to other places, especially rural places, which, I argue, have in the past half-century lost what political and cultural autonomy they may have achieved to national or commercial agencies and ideologies. Because I have taken rural environments and life to be distinctive, I have ignored local history in the cities, despite similarities between urban ethnic neighborhoods and rural ethnic communities, and despite local history's origin in the civic and political histories of the late medieval and Renaissance Italian city-states, with the writing of such Florentine humanists as Lorenzo Valla and Niccolo Machiavelli.
I wrote this book assuming that local history requires a corresponding mutation to match the mounting metamorphosis of the contemporary landscape. Everywhere, place is being superseded and reshaped. Home, locale, community, and region-and the landscape they collectively form-have entered a stage of transformation. People everywhere live in an increasingly disembodied world, their landscapes and minds increasingly falling under the persuasion and control of abstract agencies and virtual images. Like the ecologies they modified and supplanted, human places-homes, farms, villages, and towns-have increasingly lost autonomy. Space and time, which once isolated places and assured continuity to experience and intensity to face-to-face interaction, have been penetrated, segmented, and diminished by surrounding forces and words. The coordinates of community, place, and time no longer define identities and experience or contour desires and expectations. Even walking, the most literal measure of grounded experience, has vanished from everyday life in town and on the farm.
As more and more people embrace multiple localities, the big and innovative explodes the small and the traditional. Technologies, markets, laws, and expectations disrupt, alter, and transform rural life. They have done so at accelerating rates since the middle of the twentieth century. Against this background of change, turbulence, transformation, and metamorphosis, I propose rethinking home and the rewriting of local and regional history.
People of every place and time deserve a history. Only local and regional history satisfies the need to remember the most intimate matters, the things of childhood. Local history carries with it the potential to reconstruct our ancestors' everyday lives: the goods, machines, and tools with which they worked, and the groups in which they were raised, in which they matured, celebrated, had ambitions, retired, and resigned themselves to their fates. It recaptures how they experienced the world through their senses: what they thought; how they felt; what they got angry, fought, and cursed about; what they prayed for; what drove them insane; and finally, how they died and were buried.
Every community has stories worthy of telling but few devoted historians worthy of telling them. On every front, local historians encounter dramatic change in environments, materials, technologies, institutions, and bureaucracies. In such a light, local historians cannot resist asking whether their subjects constitute a brand new order of society and culture in contrast to the one that existed until about a half century ago-one characterized, as French thinker Paul Valery has noted, by "interchangeability, interdependence, and uniformity in customs, manners, and even in dreams." In the course of its last 150 years, civilization has been measured by multiplying desires, by consumption and production, by new laws and government agencies. The past has been displaced at dizzying rates. Traditions and mentalities have been superseded, manners and crafts extinguished. Places and locales have been overrun as suburbs, subdivisions, and malls have expanded to satisfy and satiate an ever more powerful and demanding commercial civilization. Peasants and villages-the dominant class and the crucible of human life since the agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago-have been commercialized and nationalized, diminished and destroyed. Ways of life that were unimagined in the countryside mere decades ago are now taken as the norm.
Local history focuses on the laboratory of change. It provides facts, comparisons, and contexts-the very pilings and piers of certain human knowledge-for the abstract reaches of contemporary social sciences and history. In the United States, historian Constance McLaughlin Green points out that "for any true understanding of American cultural development, the writing and study of American local history is of primary importance. There lie the grassroots of American civilization. ... [There one finds] our varied population stocks and their sharply differentiated cultural inheritances, the widely differing environments and the rapidity of changes in our economic life."
Local history satisfies an innate human desire to be connected to a place. It feeds our hunger to experience life directly and on intimate terms. It serves nostalgia, which (especially when one concedes nostalgia's political and literary cultivation and exploitation) is arguably as compelling a cultural force as the quest for progress. Fostering loyalty to a unique climate of feelings and thoughts, it honors a kind of primal attraction one has to one's own youth-which is unique in the irreversible succession of life. In the words of early-twentieth-century French Catholic poet and essayist Charles Peguy: "One never makes friends except of the same age and time." Our only friends are contemporaries "of the same fellowship, of the same formation, of the same society, of the same world. ... Friends of an only time are only friends." This singular friendship, mortal and fleeting, is a good without equivalent. It is "a cradle, a family, a people, a time, a date, an entire temporal order, of unique and irreplaceable importance."
Local history serves more than personal desire and individual nostalgia, however. It meets groups' collective yearning to bring back to life departed people, places, and times, tempting nostalgia and commerce equally to exploit themes of inheritance and heritage with pageants, theme parks, and even real estate ventures. As Lewis Mumford pointed out, "Every old part of the country is filled with memorials of our past; tombstones and cottages and churches, names and legends, old roads and trails and abandoned mines, as well as the things we built and used yesterday. All these memorials bring us closer to the past, and, so doing, bring us closer to the present; for we are living history as well as recording it; and our memories are as necessary as our anticipations." Local history-as I, along with my original colleagues in the history department, have discovered in a decade of teaching mandatory rural and regional courses at Southwest State University-provides the natural link between immediate experience and general history. It confirms the idea that one's own home is worthy of study and, again in the words of Mumford, promotes "a decent self-respect," and it is that "form of self-knowledge which is the beginning of sound knowledge about anyone else."
Local history's topics are innumerable in their combinations. They arise from the desire to know, to explain, to preserve, to understand, and to commemorate. They flow out of interest in and curiosity about one's own place of worship, business, and civic and social organizations. Like the impulses that underpin journalism, local history takes form around the wish to document single episodes, which often teem with worlds of meaning, and is imbued with a sense of proprietorship in those episodes. A violent strike, a political massacre, a wildfire, or a sunken ship-all potentially win local historians' fidelity.
Local historians are driven to piece together a cherished and intimate past. They cannot quit themselves of their curiosity. This quest supersedes any desire to write critical history and often separates that desire from the professional historian's commitment either to a structured narrative of events or to a theory of development. In fact, local historians' concern for the unique person, singular place, or particular episode challenges them to satisfy the demands of both narrative and explanation.
Local historians' interests in traditions, legends, and rituals-the physical and mental landscapes of a place-resemble those of folklore or anthropology. Yet local historians commonly eschew theory. Their fidelity is not to ideology or methodology, to complex hypotheses, subtle generalizations, or protracted debates about sources, but to details, anecdotes, and particularities. Their concern for the particular can make them parochial. They risk mistaking what is common to an entire epoch and a whole nation as singular to their own place and time. Often, local historians' love of the past leads them to discount the present. Change, if they acknowledge it at all, is judged as decline from a pristine past, from a time when the world was whole. They discard the present, which is the spur to rethink the past, and, thus, escape a reconsideration of the present. And what is history without revision?
Enamored with the static past, local museums and historical societies can become mere attics for peoples and things of bygone times. Members, though not necessarily averse to today's inventions and progress, pledge themselves to collecting, storing, and reminiscing, to duplicating and reinforcing a frozen image of the past. Endless sheets of music, hats sufficient for a dozen Easter parades, uniforms and guns from all services, band instruments, and old Coke signs can cumulatively reiterate a single redundant point: mass-produced goods, along with national signs and slogans, had a profound effect everywhere.
In all likelihood, the present condition of local history will persist as long as local historians remain oblivious to the mutation, metamorphosis, and even obliteration of the contemporary countryside. Aside from sharing with most historians a disinterest in the changing present, they lack a stimulus, a minimal theoretical apparatus, and a guiding model. The field of local history by its nature is profoundly fragmented. Think of Thomas Jefferson's hold over the Charlottesville region of Virginia. Here, local history is dominated by the biography of a single individual. Think of Petersburg, Virginia. There, place is commanded by a single battle in the Civil War. In yet other places (I think of alternating stretches along the mid-Atlantic coast), local history is subsumed by concern for a changing ecology, the rise and fall of the fishing industry, or the dominance of an emerging beach-resort industry. Conversely, in Cape May, New Jersey, all efforts, historians' included, are dedicated to preserving the town's golden age of leisure for the sake of present tourism and community.
Many places in the Midwest likewise know and express themselves in relationship to stereotypic, often idealized and sentimentalized portraits of the past. One place focuses on its early settlement days; another commemorates the coming or rule of the railroad, or thriving times prior to the First World War. Such preoccupations can distort the entire history of a place. The commemorated past can spell disregard for the present, leaving great contemporary changes unperceived and undocumented. Traces of the changing world in the village vanish daily-and local historians do not take measure of them. And, like generations before us, we fail to grasp in detail what the world makes of us.
If local history is to be renovated, it will depend on the commitment of talented amateurs seeking to understand what has and truly is happening to home. These individuals will most likely be solitary and eclectic. They may be community college teachers, people from the ranks of the burgeoning retired, or stray and odd individuals intent on grasping the place where destiny has delivered them. Certainly they will arise unpredictably. Their passion will be to fathom the singular place that has imprinted their mind with indispensable memories and a willingness to rethink home.
Proving the old saw that historiographers rarely write good history and theorists seldom conduct good practice, a new and vibrant local history will not spring from those in popular or academic quarters who appropriate locales for their sweeping views of humanity. It will not come from those who harness their stories to myths of the early settlers' triumphant ordeal. Nor will it come from revisionists who turn the settlement narrative upside down by making it a hideous tale of destruction and exploitation. As practitioners of local history know, the history of one place is never quite that of another place. What they cherish is not theory and generalization, but difference and differentiation.
Yet there is a rub to repudiating theory. If local history is to be renewed, historians must first question the premises of their history. They cannot be isolated from the present and its changes. If the changing times prove worthy of their consideration at all, they must doubt the reasoning that locks place and nation in a single and progressive history. They must draw fresh inspiration from professional history, especially from the emerging field of environmental history. Also, as I hope this work will testify, fresh work in cultural history, particularly in modern and contemporary European histories, can offer novel themes and angles for local historical composition. Ever in need of invigorated concepts and broadened perspectives-not moral rage and metaphysical stammering-in order to provoke and excite, local historians must make sparks without appearing to grind an ax.
Excerpted from Rethinking Home by Joseph A. Amato Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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