The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation: Essays in the Social History of Rural America
Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie
American social historians are, figuratively speaking, moving to the country. After a period when they heavily concentrated on cities and industrial workers, they are now turning some of their attention to the rural settings in which most Americans lived before the twentieth century. To the “new rural history” they are bringing many of the theories and methods associated with the “new social history” in general. Among these are demography and the quantification that goes with it, and a comparative international approach that undercuts extreme notions of “American exceptionalism.” One also finds a neo-Marxian preoccupation with the formation of social classes and the struggle of “precapitalist” ways of thinking and living in a world increasingly dominated by a commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.
The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation, edited by Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude, is a kind of progress report on the new rural history; it not only offers samples of recent work by some of its leading practitioners but also highlights issues that remain unresolved or open to conflicting interpretations. It contains eleven fine essays on topics ranging from itinerant portrait makers in the rural North during the period before the Civil War to cases of forced labor in the American West between 1600 and 1890. Because of the diversity of the collection it is impossible to do justice to individual contributions (I will not even be able to mention them all), but several of them deal with critical issues that are also addressed in John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek, the detailed case study of one rural community and a notably successful example of the new work being done on the social history of rural America.
Until recently, one of the great truisms of American historians was that rural people in this country had little or nothing in common with European peasants, or at least not since the early colonial period, when New England towns recreated some aspects of the traditional English agricultural village. Commercialized agriculture—production for markets beyond the local exchange community, the view of land as a commodity rather than as a permanent source of family subsistence, and the willingness to move to new lands with greater fertility or access to markets—has been seen as the norm since the late eighteenth century, if not earlier. As late as 1970, historians of various ideological and methodological persuasions seemed firmly agreed that American farmers, with the possible (but highly debatable) exception of slaveholding southern planters, were essentially agrarian capitalists or “agricultural businessmen” who welcomed improvements in transportation, the expansion of markets, and the growth of capitalism.
The new rural historians are challenging this consensus by calling our attention to the times and places when American farmers engaged in self-sufficient domestic production, and some of them are claiming that there was considerable reluctance to sacrifice this independent “precapitalist” way of life to the dependencies and vagaries of a market economy. In the anthology edited by Hahn and Prude, we learn from Gary Kulik about the opposition of…
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