American Populism A Social History Essay

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Another of its major themes – solidarity – could be said to have been anticipated by that sub-genre of autobiography and sociological enquiry – Hoggart's Uses of Literacy (1957) was the prototype – which made the vanishing slum a symbol of lost community.' So far as historical work was concerned, these sentiments crystallised in an anti-progressive interpretation of the past, a folkloric enthusiasm for anachronism and survival, and an elegaic regard for disappearing communities.

'Resurrectionism' – rescuing the past from the 'enormous condescension' of posterity, reconstituting the vanished components of 'The World We Have Lost' – became a major impetus in historical writing and research.

Rescuing the past from the enormous 'condescension of posterity'? Fashion may direct the historians' gaze; or a new methodology may excite them; or they may stumble on an untapped source.

Sometimes it is suggested by 'gaps' which the young researcher is advised by supervisors to fill; or by an established interpretation which, iconoclastically, he or she is encouraged to challenge.

Automation, electrification and smokefree zones transformed steam-powered factories into industrial monuments.

Property restorers, working in the interstices of comprehensive re-development, turned mean streets into picturesque residences – Victorian 'cottages' rather than emblems of poverty, overcrowding and ill-health.Similarly, the anti-institutional bias of the new social history – the renewed determination to write the history of 'ordinary' people as against that of statecraft, could be said to echo, or even, in some small part to be a constituent element in, a much more widespread collapse of social deference, and a questioning of authority figures of all kinds.In another field – that of historical conservation – one could point to the new attention being given to the preservation and identification of vernacular architecture; to the spread of open-air, 'folk', and industrial museums, with their emphasis on the artefacts of everyday life; and on the retrieval and publication of old photographs, with a marked bias towards the representation of scenes from humble life.Urban history, pioneered as a cottage industry by H. Dyos in the 1960s, and labour history, as redefined in E. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class, was a protest against the routinisation and narrowing of economic history, together with (in the case of Thompson) sideswipes at the invading generalities of the sociologists.Social history owes its current prosperity, both as a popular enthusiasm and as a scholarly practice, to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and reproduces – in however mediated a form – its leading inspirations.The animating sentiment – a very opposite of Mr Wilson's 'white heat of modern technology', or Mr Macmillan's 'winds of change' – was a poignant sense of loss, a disenchantment, no less apparent on the Left of the political spectrum than on the Right – with post-war social change.One is dealing here with a whole set of transferences and displacements in which a notion of 'tradition', previously attached to the countryside and disappearing crafts was transposed into an urban and industrial setting.Social history does not only reflect public interest, it also prefigures and perhaps helps to create it.Thus 'Victorian Values' were being rehabilitated by nineteenth-century enthusiasts for a decade or more before Mrs Thatcher appropriated them for her Party's election platform; while Professor Hoskins' discovery of 'lost' villages, and his celebration of the English landscape anticipated some of the animating sentiments which have been made the conservationist movement a force for planners to reckon with.Keith Thomas' magnificent Man and the Natural World, like his earlier Religion and the Decline of Magic, though finely honed and attentive to counter-tendencies, might also said to be structured by a version of modernisation theory documenting the advance of reason and humanity.The plebeian subject matter favoured by the new social history, corresponds to other cultural manifestations of the 1960s, as for instance 'new wave' British cinema, with its cockney and provincial heroes, 'pop art' with its use of everyday artefacts, or the transformation of a 'ghetto' beat (Liverpool sound) into a national music.


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