September 5, 2011
Inasmuch as many new political roles were being created by the needs of this new society, both necessity and opportunities for political careers might more and more be seen reflected in the long lists of candidates and high level of participation. In Hamilton County, Ohio, there was an election of delegates to the constitutional convention of 1802, and for ten openings there were ninety-four candidates—twenty-six of them receiving from 121 to 1,635 votes apiece. The personal canvass, the practice of hawking one’s political appeal from door to door, not generally assumed to have entered American politics until the Jacksonian era, was familiar in the Northwest well before 1824. A cabin-dweller’s effusion in the Illinois Intelligencer of July 1, 1818, describes how hosts of candidates, at the approach of an election, would descend upon him with whisky, trinkets for the children, compliments, and grand promises.

— Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “A Meaning for Turner’s Frontier: Democracy in the Old Northwest,” in Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier (1968), 130

September 3, 2011
Whether they migrated to Manhattan’s gay world from the small towns of America or Europe, from the city’s outer boroughs or suburbs, or from the straight world of their families and social convention in Manhattan, many gay men adapted to the urban environment in ways remarkably similar to those of other migrant groups. They developed extensive social networks on the basis of their sexual ties and shared experience of marginalization, just as immigrants elaborated social networks on the basis of their kinship and regional ties. Gay men expanded those ties and invested them with new meaning because, like other immigrants, they needed them in order to adapt to the city, to find housing, work, and emotional support in a hostile society. Although men were not integrated into the gay world by their families of origin, gay men developed methods to incorporate newcomers into it. Within that world they created a distinctive culture that enabled them to resist, on an everyday basis, their social marginalization: tactics for communicating with one another in hostile settings, ways of affirming, transmitting, and celebrating their communal ties, and resources for subverting the ideology that marginalized them as “unnatural.”

— George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), 272

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Filed under: orals urban gender migration rural 
August 31, 2011
In the end, the fact that the American countryside produced both prolific poachers and a moral ecology that criticized certain poaching practices should not prove surprising. Poaching touched on many issues at the heart of turn-of-the-century rural life—the desire for self-sufficiency, the drive to prove one’s manliness and daring, the hope of avoiding the dependency of the workplace—as well as on abiding notions of community responsibility and of one’s right as an American to the hunt. These factors sometimes coincided but often conflicted, prohibiting rural folk from reaching any easy consensus about poaching’s moral stature.

— Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (2001), 146

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Filed under: orals labor westering rural 
August 23, 2011

Sexual segregation extended even to the language of midwesterners. Carl Sandburg wrote that “there were sayings spoken among the men only, out of barn-life and handling cattle and hogs; the daily chores required understanding of the necessary habits of men and animals.” We can reasonably suppose that male language was as earthy as the influences of the barnyard, grocer, and gander-pulling ground. We have already heard emigrant women testify that men could swear, yet at home this masculine language was carefully kept to male circles.

Almost no one at the time collected examples of male speech; even today [1979] folklorists are reluctant or unable to publish their earthier collections of folkspeech. Some gleanings of late nineteenth-century Midwest vocabulary have come down to us, however, and they do suggest a sexual segregation in language. The names for male animals—boar, stallion, bull, cock—were considered taboo words around women; a boar was known as a “male hog,” a stallion as a “stable horse,” bulls were “gentlemen cows,” and cocks “roosters.” By the taint of association no one referred to bull fiddles or bull rushes because of the sexual connotations. Similarly, to avoid the allusion, men stumbled through such contortions as I “pulled back both roosters” on the shotgun. In southern Illinois bags were always sacks because the former was a male word for the scrotum; flowers were “blooms” or “pretties” because the female genitals were called by this name; and one never pricked but always “stuck” his finger.

These contortions of the language have traditionally been considered a manifestation of American Victorian prudery. But all other indications are that midwestern men were a bawdy and boisterous lot, and it is difficult to label the male life style “prudish” in most respects. Rather, in normal situations men tempered their language around women, partly in deference to feminine sensibility. More importantly, by shifting to a separate language, men were protecting their own cultural world from the moral scrutiny of outsiders—the opposite sex. [English traveler William] Oliver, at dinner with a large Illinois family, found that “during the short time we sat, before and after supper, there were scarcely half a dozen words of conversation—quite characteristic of the people, when the sexes are met.”

— John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (1979), 120-1

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Filed under: orals westering gender rural 
August 23, 2011
By attending to ordinary workers’ lived experiences and collective subjectivities in the making, in the contexts of evolving institutional reforms, this book seeks to document and explain the potential and limitations of Chinese labor as a force of social change. The organizing concept that ties the chapters together is “livelihood struggles.” It encompasses both collective resistance in the forms of petitions, protests, and strikes, and individual and familial survival strategies taking advantage of state redistribution and market opportunities. By linking resistance and survival in a single study, I hope to understand both why workers mount a remarkable level of resistance to reform but also why they have not become more radical.

— Ching Kwan Lee, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt (2007), 29-30

August 15, 2011

The starting point is simple. Anglo-American colonization demanded specific forms of rural and urban development: rural for the production of necessities and trade staples, with the reward of land for immigrants, and urban for the empire’s local management and administration of that agrarian development, which of necessity included (to different degrees in different regions) the related mercantile activity, relations with the indigenous populations, and forced assimilation of slave labor. Although this development was initially carried out in modest form in seaport settlements and surrounding agricultural areas, migration and entrepreneurial investment quickly fostered what may accurately be called a country-city opposition. Conflicts of varying kinds, typically concerning security and rent, arose, and these were particularly evident in areas where oversight of rural development was strained or inadequate: it is here that we can begin to speak of a backcountry beyond the better-managed country of the littoral periphery.

In this field of conflicts, a vernacular vocabulary quickly developed, focusing on two seemingly opposed areas of social and cultural organization. A vocabulary of seriality emerged to address the problems of dispersed settlement, including vulnerability to indigenous peoples, management of property and rent, and cultural cohesion and control, whether political or religious. Given the relatively small-scale and dispersed social patterns of indigenous peoples in eastern North America, which knew no counterpart to Tenochtitlán, the vocabulary of seriality was applied to Native Americans as well, to guide programs of land acquisition, mercantile conquest, cultural conversion, and imperial competition. At the same time, a colonial vocabulary of fusion emerged to address the problems of group resistance, whether cultural or violent. Special attention was again given to indigenous peoples and their periodic ability to resist the frequently less unified colonizers. Increasingly, analyses of fusion were applied to acts of group resistance in the backcountry, though of course the analyses had urban and maritime applications as well. That these vocabularies of fusion and seriality developed in tandem suggests that dispersal and cohesion were the two extreme divergences from orderly manageable populations. Each had its European antecedents; neither was a phenomenon unique to the New World. But settler colonization in North America involved extreme degrees and forms of seriality with no parallel in the English countryside, and, in the context of nascent and feeble administrative institutions and procedures, a qualitatively different vulnerability to group fusion. For these reasons, talk of a post-colonial situation—in which colonials and new citizens struggle with and against an imperial culture—focuses too much on the urban-imperial elites at the expense of the rural populations. A more serious cultural challenge was faced in the seriality of the countryside (what Marx was describing with the term “rural idiocy”) that resisted the backcountry’s integration into the imperial fold, and, at times, in a resistant fusion against urban-colonial administration.

— Ed White, The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America (2005), 168-9

August 15, 2011

Almost twenty years earlier, in Texas, the Socialist Party’s Renter’s Union and Land League declined in part because of co-optation of the Democratic Party and the repression by the state and federal governments during World War I. Virulent racism and reactionary politics of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s tended to mute agrarian protest. Less conspicuous but ultimately more devastating to farmer movements generally was the gradual change in the structure of agriculture from a network of tenant- and owner-operated small farms to larger units of production that relied on wage labor and power farming. For many displaced tenants, the STFU [Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union—not the other STFU] offered no solution and no relief. White tenants in Texas wanted more than their share of parity and rental payments; they wanted their own farms. And when they realized that the agricultural ladder to ownership had utterly collapsed in the wake of industrial farming, tractors, and Mexican labor, their response was to abandon farming altogether or seek new opportunities farther west.

The impoverishment and homelessness of displaced tenants were captured in photographs that Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee took for the Farm Security Administration. The photographs—and works such as [Erskine] Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and [James] Agee and Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—put southern poor whites int he national spotlight in the 1930s. Only when whites were reduced to living like Mexicans and blacks did the nation take notice. Although there had always been poor whites, like the Jeeter Lester family in Erskine Caldwell’s popular novel Tobacco Road, the existence of such a large army of migrant whites was unsettling to white America. The nation was inundated with images of white men, women, and children living int he most abject poverty, little different from the poverty of Mexican and black sharecroppers and cotton pickers. Whereas blacks had gone by the millions to city ghettos, displaced whites were drawn by the illusory promise of California’s agribusiness farms. They would not all go gently into that corporate domain, and they only reluctantly surrendered their identities as white farmers for off-white farm workers, at least until World War II, when other opportunities opened up for them. For the poor white farmers of central Texas, the cotton culture of the New South had gone west.

— Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (1997), 200-201

August 9, 2011
In its vagueness and diversity the Country Life Movement closely parallels the Progressive Movement which was operating at the same time. But the Country Lifers parallel the Progressives in other ways as well, and each of the major interpretations of the Progressive Era also applies at least in part to the Country Life Movement. Historians like John Chamberlain and Richard Hofstadter, for example, have seen the Progressives as throwbacks to an earlier era; as men attempting to perpetuate an increasingly dysfunctional set of values in an industrial era. Some Country Lifers, particularly the urban agrarians of the Bailey wing of the movement, seem to fit comfortably into this interpretation, as one student of the Country Life Movement has noted. It is understandable that historians might see Liberty Hyde Bailey and other urban agrarians as composing the Country Life Movement, because they tended to be persistent and prolific writers and because they did hold prominent positions in country life activities. But to do so ignores both a wide variety of Country Lifers and the subtleties and complexities of the urban agrarians themselves. Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein, on the other hand, see Progressives as business-oriented conservatives bent on shaping the modern era to their selfish purposes. Certainly, the prominence of businessmen and bankers in the Country Life Movement makes this thesis an attractive one, but there were lots of other people in the movement as well, and even among businessmen and bankers there were important variations. One thesis which fits the Country Life Movement rather well is that advanced by Samuel P. Hays and Robert Wiebe. They see the Progressives as being primarily interested in advancing social and economic efficiency and organization in the United States. When their movement was at its height, no Country Lifers questioned the proposition that the countryside should be better organized and more efficient. Indeed, most of them explicitly stated organization and efficiency as their goals for the countryside, and their pursuit of these goals was constant even if they differed on questions of means. So the Hays-Wiebe thesis applies to the Country Life Movement in broad outline, even if it does not perfectly explain what the Country Lifers were about. The major way in which the Country Life Movement diverges from the basic Hays-Wiebe model lies in the question of the impetus behind the drive for organization and efficiency. In agriculture the drive for organization and efficiency came not from the group to be organized and made efficient—in other words, the farmers—but from predominantly urban people who were not part of the rural community. So what we see in the Country Life Movement is not simply another facet of the Progressive drive for organization and efficiency, but also a manifestation of the ancient rural-urban conflict in which the latter, increasingly dominant in society, politics, and the economy, attempted to impose its values and notions on the former. That these values and notions were the Progressive ones of organization and efficiency does not alter the aspects of conflict, manipulation and imposition involved.

— David Danbom, The Resisted Revolution: Urban America and the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900-1930 (1979), 46-47

July 25, 2011

The conflict of interests is never fixed. Technological change and shifts in markets and in public policy create and destroy fields of enterprise. With each refiguring of the terrain the scramble for occupancy is renewed. Shall it be a field for profit or for noncommercial activity, for large business or small, nation-state or local government, private bodies or public ones? Laggard nations have certain advantages in these choices: the condition of being behindhand shifts much of the cost of experiment and mistake onto the early players. By the time the latecomers arrive, the positions are clearer, the techniques prepackaged and refined, the experience of others appropriatable. That is what allows laggards, in certain circumstances, to leapfrog over their competitors by cashing in on the advantages of delay. The ability of nineteenth-century American and German manufacturers to surpass their British rivals by pouring borrowed techniques into newer plants is a case in point. In the realm of social politics, the British ability to borrow from Danish and German experience so as to leapfrog past Germany in social welfare provision in the years 1908 to 1911 is another. Late-blooming competitiveness, as [the well-mustachioed David] Lloyd George demonstrated, is a position of no mean strength.

But if laggard nations have striking advantages, the risk of delay is the risk of precluded options. When the moment of choice arrives, the territory of action may already have been preempted. The fences may already be in the ground, and the occupants—no matter how well or poorly they are performing their tasks—may be extremely difficult to move. If the Lloyd George government could plan with a boldness beyond Bismarck’s ken, it was, by the same dynamic, required to compromise more heavily with already entrenched interests. In the United States, where the social insurance movement’s experts capitalized on their behindhandedness by scouring Europe for its lessons and inspiration, the field was too thick with claimants for proponents of social insurance to make easy headway at all. In the realm of city services and the urban land and shelter markets, where commercial utility suppliers and real estate investors had colonized the terrain aggressively and early, much the same had been true. The disadvantage of political behindhandedness is that when the issue finally gets on the agenda of political choice, the moment for effective decision may already have passed.

— Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998), 265-266

July 13, 2011
Such ironies only offer further evidence that broad cultural currents, rather than a measured evaluation of rural needs, shaped attitudes toward farming outside, and even inside, of rural communities: farm people were no more able than urban dwellers to resist fully the pervasive influences of corporatization, industrialization, and consumerism—the forces of modernity. Yet farm women, already characterized by an excess of productive and reproductive labor, and with less access to the scientific principles and technological advances that promised to redefine their husbands as mental more than physical workers, were insistently corporealized in a manner that suggests their especially acute figurative resonance vis-à-vis both the rural and the modern. Their very bodies—as ad hoc field laborers, as manufacturers of domestic products, as reproductive vehicles—reified and extended traditional American (farm) values… At the same time, though, the newer forces of modernity urged them to use those same bodies in different ways. The growth of commodity capitalism, together with the class consciousness that was nurtured by cultural constructions of farmers as a class set apart, magnified farm women’s roles as signifiers, and moderators, of their families’ diets, dress, and leisure time—the physical markers of class standing. The pressure to adopt more efficient modes of housekeeping and to re/locate women indoors also problematized farm women’s physical routines and work spaces. And the birth control movement, although distanced from rural communities, nonetheless challenged traditional and contemporary male assumptions about (rural) women’s procreativity, leading to growing agitation by farm wives for more reproductive control.

— Janet Galligani Casey, A New Heartland: Women, Modernity, and the Agrarian Ideal in America (2009), 49

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