The Populist Vision

The Populist Vision

by Charles Postel

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In the late nineteenth century, monumental technological innovations like the telegraph and steam power made America and the world a much smaller place. New technologies also made possible large-scale organization and centralization. Corporations grew exponentially and the rich amassed great fortunes. Those on the short end of these wrenching changes responded in the


In the late nineteenth century, monumental technological innovations like the telegraph and steam power made America and the world a much smaller place. New technologies also made possible large-scale organization and centralization. Corporations grew exponentially and the rich amassed great fortunes. Those on the short end of these wrenching changes responded in the Populist revolt, one of the most effective challenges to corporate power in American history. But what did Populism represent? Half a century ago, scholars such as Richard Hofstadter portrayed the Populist movement as an irrational response of backward-looking farmers to the challenges of modernity. Since then, the romantic notion of Populism as the resistance movement of tradition-based and pre-modern communities to a modern and commercial society has prevailed. In a broad, innovative reassessment, based on a deep reading of archival sources, The Populist Vision argues that the Populists understood themselves as--and were in fact--modern people, who pursued an alternate vision for modern America. Taking into account both the leaders and the led, The Populist Vision uses a wide lens, focusing on the farmers, both black and white, men and women, while also looking at wager workers and bohemian urbanites. From Texas to the Dakotas, from Georgia to California, farmer Populists strove to use the new innovations for their own ends. They sought scientific and technical knowledge, formed highly centralized organizations, launched large-scale cooperative businesses, and pressed for reforms on the model of the nation's most elaborate bureaucracy - the Postal Service. Hundreds of thousands of Populist farm women sought education, employment in schools and offices, and a more modern life. Miners, railroad workers, and other labor Populists joined with farmers to give impetus to the regulatory state. Activists from Chicago, San Francisco, and other new cities provided Populism with a dynamic urban dimension This major reassessment of the Populist experience is essential reading for anyone interested in the politics, society, and culture of modern America.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] meticulously researched study...."—New York Times Book Review

"A highly original contribution to the scholarship on late nineteenth-century reform movements. Rarely has any historian given us such a comprehensive and detailed view of the Populists, in all their rural, urban, and variegated complexity of thought.... This is an admirable, sophisticated and highly informative book, one to savor, to reflect upon, and to look forward to the discussions it will surely provoke."—Ronald P. Formisano, Georgia Historical Quarterly

"Many who have written about Populism will find their oxen being gored by Postel. This is a good thing, for his is a book well worth arguing with. Postel makes a compelling case for reconsidering parts of the major narratives of Populism and he offers fresh insights into the emergence of modern agribusiness as part of industrial America in parallel with the expansion of the national state.... His accomplishment will encourage future students of this complex subject to explore afresh the larger skein of which his set of threads is a very important part."—Robert C. McMath, Reviews in American History

"It is rare that a book comes along with the power to redefine the parameters of a major historiographical debate.... This is the most important book on Populism in thirty years, and a brief review cannot hope to do it justice. Masterfully researched in an astonishingly broad array of primary and secondary sources, and written in a clear, compelling style, The Populist Vision propels its author into the first rank of American political historians."—Journal of American History

"[E]xcellent intellectual history of Populism.... The significance of Charles Postel's work lies in its national scope and its focus on the ideas and the writings of key leaders.... this well-written and deftly argued work.... an excellent book. This is the best intellectual history of Populism since the work of Norman Pollack. Postel's book will cause historians of the Gilded Age to rethink the Populist vision and blueprints for society. Scholars should read this stimulating, provocative, and exemplary study."—The Historian

"In his new book, "The Populist Vision," Charles Postel offers an original and riveting account of the Populist vision that jump-started 20th-century social reform movements and is still relevant to our contemporary American society."—Ruth Rosen,

"Here is a history as diverse, complex, and surprising as the Populists themselves. Sympathetic but clear-eyed, respectful but unromantic, Postel challenges some of the most entrenched misconceptions in all of American history."—Edward L. Ayers, University of Virginia

"Postel's revaluation of the Populists seeks to make the best parts of their vision relevant to a generation once again troubled by corporate greed and a growing economic chasm between rich and poor. His Populists were not behind, but ahead of their time. They still are."—R. Laurence Moore, Cornell University

"Broadly conceived, impressively researched, and imaginatively argued, this valuable study deserves a wide audience."—Peter H. Argersinger, author of The Limits of Agrarian Radicalism

"This is the most significant work on the 1880s-1890s Populist movement since Lawrence Goodwyn's Democratic Promise thirty years ago. Beginning from the premise that Populism was a modern movement, Postel does a wonderful job of revealing the unexpected unities underlying the movement's diverse strands."—Jeffrey Ostler, University of Oregon

"Charles Postel offers a fresh, wonderfully ambitious account of Populism in the 1890s, reassessing both the movement's intellectual emphases and its political contributions. Historians have long needed a thorough reconsideration of the Populists and their relationship to early twentieth-century reformers. In The Populist Vision, they will find new insights and perspectives."—Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905

"Charles Postel has written a stern, and compelling, rebuke to scholars who see the Populists as America's greatest mass anti-modernists. Relentlessly—but always fairly—he constructs his case for the modern character of Populist thinking about economics and education, about race and even religion. Above all, Postel shows that the supposedly hayseed Populists were indeed thinkers. This is far and away the best intellectual history of American Populism ever written."— Robert D. Johnston, author of The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon

"A well researched, wel-written, thoughtful, and original account of the Populist movement.... An essential and significant contribution to the Populist canon."—Matthew Hild, Western Historical Quarterly

"A valuable contribution...with far reaching implications." —Big Muddy

"Charles Postel has written a comprehensive and richly detailed account of late-nineteenth-century American Populism. The Populist Vision is one of the most persuasive and compelling analyses of the Populist movement published to date." —Journal of Southern History

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Oxford University Press
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Meet the Author

Charles Postel is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at San Francisco State University.

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