Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Ordinary People and Everyday Life: Perspectives on the New Social History. Edited by James B. Gardner and George Rollie Adams. Nashville: The American Association for State and Local History, 1983. Index. 216 Pages. $17.95. Reviewed by William Issel, Professor of History and Urban Studies, San Francisco State University, co-author of San Francisco: Presidio. Port and Pacific Metropolis (1981) and author of the forthcoming American Society Since 1945 (1984).
This is one of several recently published books from the American Association for State and Local History that offer researchers and readers of local history a reliable and accessible account of developing fields and new perspectives, as well as information on innovations in research techniques and methodologies in American history. Edited by two members of the Associations staff, this book is based on a series of seminars on “Re-examining America’s Past” that were held in 1980 and 1981. Convinced of the need to delve more deeply into the daily life experiences of the majority of Americans, men and women, black, white, and brown, the Association commissioned a number of the seminar participants to write essays showing the ways in which their fields of specialization have contributed to the establishment of a “new” social history. The nine essays should be of interest to those working in historical agencies, museums, or libraries, as well as to teachers, students, and general readers interested in a convenient guide to one of the current growth areas in the field of American history.
Peter N. Stearns, editor of The Journal of Social History and one of the more active proponents of the new social history, contributes an overview of the field showing how an interest in the daily affairs of women, the working class, blacks, and other ethnic groups has been pursued by historians influenced by European research and by the social sciences. In addition, the political upheavals of the 1960s sensitized historians to the importance of political protest and to the fact that seemingly “inarticulate” groups in history had much to express in often unconventional ways. Stearns points out a feature of new social history that has particular importance to those interested in local history: the often ignored records of local government agencies and private organizations are often the most valuable sources of information for the practitioners of this new field. These records allow a glimpse into everyday transactions that absorbed much of the time of most of the members of local communities. The more examples of the “material culture” of local communities that can be preserved, the better able will historians and museum and historical society personnel be to recreate past patterns of daily life.
The general survey presented by Stearns is given form and substance by the other eight contributors; they are all leading interpreters of the topics on which they write. Howard Rabinowitz presents a survey on race, ethnicity and cultural pluralism; Elizabeth Pleck writes on women’s history; Kathleen Neils Conzen defines the field of the new urban history, and Robert P. Swierenga writes on agriculture and rural life. The recent work on families is analyzed by Maris A. Vinovskis, and David Brody contributes an essay on workers and work. Samuel P. Hays, one of the pioneers of the new urban history, shows the possibilities of a new synthesis of politics and social history; Barbara G. Carson and Gary Carson show how social history can be studied through artifacts. Each essay concludes with informative footnotes and suggestions for further reading.
This brief volume, which concludes with a carefully constructed index, should be of interest to all readers who seek a convenient, up-to-date guide to this important area of American historical writing.