AHA Report: New England "Town Studies" Turn Forty

I am not in San Diego this year for the AHA, but if I was, I would have probably attended Session #194: “Four New England Towns Turn Forty: A Portrait of the New Social History in Middle Age.” The principal players were:

Chair: Jane Kamensky, Brandeis University

Panel Discussion:
John Demos, Yale University and author of A Little Commonwealth.

Philip J. Greven Jr., Rutgers University-New Brunswick and author of Four Generations.

Kenneth A. Lockridge, University of Montana and author of A New England Town.

Michael Zuckerman, University of Pennsylvania and author of Peaceable Kingdoms.

These four historians revolutionized early American history through their “town studies” of New England communities. They were the first historians to bring the New Social History to bear on a field that had been dominated, thanks to Perry Miller, by intellectual history. Since their publication in the early 1970s these books have been a staple on graduate student reading lists. They are classics.

Another “Way of Improvement Leads Home” correspondent, Eric Miller, attended this session today. You can find his thoughts on the panel below. Miller teaches American history at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. His biography of Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time, is due out in April 2010.

Not much time, but I wanted to let you know about a session you would have found fascinating. The authors of what panel chair Jane Kamensky called the “4 totemic town studies” did a 40 year retrospective. It was a pretty spellbinding, and revelatory, session. Demos started out with a gentle, eloquent, upbeat reflection, joking that it was a “dinosaur show.” He used Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous recollection of the civil war–“when we were young, our hearts were touched with fire”–to frame his remarks. Doing the new social history, he said, “defined what being young meant.” In his case, his turn to this new direction was an attempt to gain some intellectual respectability, or, better, self-respect, in the face of the (then) thriving social sciences. This is what he thinks the new social history achieved: history as a real discipline that can stand on its own, rather than the form of “journalism” that it tended to be perceived as in the 60s.

Whereas Demos talked about “fire,” Greven remembered the “anxiety” of having no idea what to do, so few models, but in the end turning to European examples for how to do this new thing. Lockridge’s main sentiment tended to come out as a kind of deep, utterly sincere, perhaps even religious passion, all these years later. “These splendid histories of lost voices lit our world,” he remembered–the attempt to “bring to light all the hidden voices of the past.”

Zuckerman struck a very different note, yet ended up packing an equally strong punch. He remembered writing “with no love for these little towns I wrote about. If any anything, I was moved by hate . . . by America’s failure to live up to its liberatory ideals.” He was inspired more by the new journalism of the era rather than social science (though he studied it intensively). He loved that the new journalism (Wolfe, Mailer, et al) permitted him to ditch “objectivity” and write a story that was flagrantly rooted in his present. “For me history was always just a vehicle to write about the present,” he confessed, talking, as had Demos, about an earlier intention to become a fiction writer.

All agreed about the presentist nature of their work. They all “wore their hearts on their sleeves,” said Zuckerman. Yet in the end they had one significant disagreement: about the alleged “fragmentation” that by the 70s the new social history had wrought. Both Lockridge and Demos said that the “fragmentation” wasn’t nearly as extensive as the critics charged, and that to the extent the narrative was fragmented, it was worth it: the story was truer and richer. Zuckerman came at it very differently. He began to sense by the 80s that absent an “an agreed upon story” the concentrated powers of the age could have their way with the communities. Those communities he’d hated, it turned out, had been able to resist concentrated imperial power due to their agreed upon story. They’d finally won his respect. And to the extent that the historical profession is complicit in fragmenting our sense of communal unity in the face of the powers of our day, via our fracturing narrative vision, we have a lot to account for.