The great thing about being a historian is that you can write about almost anything and get away with it. Everything that happened in the past that left chronological records is fair game. If you’re really good, you can even fake the chronology. Of course, most historians don’t write, once they get their Ph.D. degrees. They write term papers in college. They write longer term papers in graduate school. They write a Ph.D. dissertation. Then they stop writing. There is another major problem with writing social history. Historians are specialists. They survive by being specialists. Yet there is no form of history that is broader than social history. It is distinctly a form of history in which specialization is a liability from the beginning. The mindset of the
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The great thing about being a historian is that you can write about almost anything and get away with it. Everything that happened in the past that left chronological records is fair game. If you’re really good, you can even fake the chronology.
Of course, most historians don’t write, once they get their Ph.D. degrees. They write term papers in college. They write longer term papers in graduate school. They write a Ph.D. dissertation. Then they stop writing.
There is another major problem with writing social history. Historians are specialists. They survive by being specialists. Yet there is no form of history that is broader than social history. It is distinctly a form of history in which specialization is a liability from the beginning. The mindset of the specialized historian is completely wrong for someone who wants to write the history of a particular society.
People can write fat histories of Western civilization because the timeline is so long, and the documentation is so varied. Somebody can read a dozen textbooks, get the general drift of what went on, and write one of his own. Maybe somebody will assign the textbook to college students, but probably not. Half a century ago, the best universities required at least a year’s course on the history of Western civilization. Today, virtually no university does. The student radicals of the late 1960’s got their way: “Hey, hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go.” About two dozen private colleges still teach it, but you have not heard of most of them. You probably have not heard of any of them.
How would you write a history of 20th century America? There were wars, and wars had influence for brief periods of time. But the war in Afghanistan has been socially irrelevant, despite the fact that it is the longest war in American history. World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War did transform American society. The Korean War did not. The wars since Vietnam have not. Furthermore, military history, while popular with military history buffs, is the abandoned child of all history departments. There is no grand theory of war. There is no grand theory of battlefield tactics and strategy. There really is no integrating theory of how wars start, how they are fought, and what the results are. So, military historians, except at the military academies, are rare on any campus. It has to be a large university that offers a course on American military history.
What about American social history? The problem here is the breadth of it. It involves popular culture. In the 20th century, that meant magazines, movies, radio shows, television shows, sports, wars, the automobile, courtship, marriage, divorce, inter-generational relationships, retirement homes, women’s fashions, language, popular music lyrics, best-selling novels, video games, changing neighborhoods, and the allocation of both time and money to all of these. Then toss in public opinion polls. This was the development of the second half of the century. Which ones would be best to look at? Why?
Then, after you have a good understanding of all of these, plus some topics that I have forgotten, how do you assess at any given time which are the dominant factors in shaping the way real people actually lived?
Basically, it’s guesswork. You have to be able to tell a story that other people will believe. You have to sell your narrative to intellectuals, but it had better be believable to people who lived through the era.
When I was an undergraduate, the most popular social history of the 1920’s was a little book called Only Yesterday. It is still probably the most widely read social history of the 1920’s. It was written in 1931. We read on Amazon:
Prohibition. Al Capone. The President Harding scandals. The revolution of manners and morals. Black Tuesday. These are only an inkling of the events and figures characterizing the wild, tumultuous era that was the Roaring Twenties. Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday traces the rise of post-World War I prosperity up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 against the colorful backdrop of flappers, speakeasies, the first radio, and the scandalous rise of skirt hemlines. Hailed as an instant classic, this is Frederick Lewis Allen’s vivid and definitive account of one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating decades, chronicling a time of both joy and terror–when dizzying highs were quickly succeeded by heartbreaking lows.
I can’t think of any other book written about a decade within one year of the end of the decade that, 86 years later, is still plausibly described as definitive. It was not written by a professional historian. Allen was the editor of Harper’s. He was a great writer. Somehow, he seemed to be able to get the essence of the 1920’s, and nobody has persuaded readers that he has written a better book than Allen’s.
The problem is this: anybody who wants to write about the 1920’s is going to start with Only Yesterday. Allen’s account is going to shape what a modern writer begins to think about the whole decade. We just can’t get away from Allen.
What did the average Joe and Jane really think about America in the 20th century? What influenced how they analyzed the world around them? What sources would you go to in an attempt to answer these questions?
Here is where I would go: Reader’s Digest. No other magazine ever captured the heart, mind, and soul of the American people, month by month. Somehow, the editor, DeWitt Wallace, really did understand what Americans wanted to read. Wikipedia reports:
Reader’s Digest is an American general-interest family magazine, published ten times a year. Formerly based in Chappaqua, New York, it is now headquartered in Midtown Manhattan. The magazine was founded in 1920, by DeWitt Wallace and Lila Bell Wallace. For many years, Reader’s Digest was the best-selling consumer magazine in the United States; it lost the distinction in 2009 to Better Homes and Gardens. According to Mediamark Research (2006), Reader’s Digest reaches more readers with household incomes of $100,000+ than Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Inc. combined.Global editions of Reader’s Digest reach an additional 40 million people in more than 70 countries, via 49 editions in 21 languages. The periodical has a global circulation of 10.5 million, making it the largest paid circulation magazine in the world.
Here is the kicker: you can’t find a set of the Reader’s Digest in a local library. Maybe the New York Public Library has a set. Your local library does not. Your local research university library doesn’t. Research universities don’t allocate shelf space to popular magazines. You can’t find the Saturday Evening Post, either. Yet that would be the second magazine I would go to in an attempt to figure out what the average American was thinking from the 1920’s at least through the 1950’s. Again, quoting Wikipedia:
The Saturday Evening Post is an American magazine published six times a year. It was published weekly under this title from 1897 until 1963, then every two weeks until 1969. From the 1920s to the 1960s, it was one of the most widely circulated and influential magazines for the American middle class, with fiction, non-fiction, cartoons and features that reached millions of homes every week.
In a research university, you also cannot find the Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and almost any other popular monthly magazine. Shelf space is simply too expensive, in the minds of librarians, to devote to popular magazines.
If these magazines were all available online in digital form, then it really would be possible to begin to do a comprehensive study of American society in the 20th century. It would take a lot of graduate students to work on it. It would take a dedicated historian an entire lifetime to begin to get a sense of what American society was all about, 1901 (Teddy Roosevelt) to 2001 (9/11). (Technically, a new century begins in 01. Oddly enough, for American history, it really did begin in 1901, and it really did end in 2001. Everything before 1901 was different, and everything after 2001 was different.) He would have to resist the temptation to specialize. He would have to connect the thousands of dots, but to do that, he would have to get inside the heads of Joe and Jane Lunchbucket. But being a professional academic involves a lifetime of avoiding the hopes and dreams of the Lunchbucket family. Even the concept of the Lunchbucket family is archaic. It basically did not exist after 1950. White-collar professions replaced blue-collar professions within five years of World War II.
I have left out an important aspect of American society: the public school system. To understand what college professors wanted the American public to believe, you would have to study American textbooks at the high school level. University libraries don’t have these on the shelves, either. The advantage is this: you would only have to study the work of one man, David Saville Muzzey. He wrote the American history textbook that the majority of American high school students read from 1911 at least to the mid-1960’s. He did this invisibly. Parents paid no attention. The public didn’t know who he was. Intellectuals didn’t know who he was. Year after year, decade after decade, his publisher generated huge revenues from his books. I don’t know what he was worth when he died, but he must have been a multi-multimillionaire off the royalties. He was a Progressive. He was a graduate of Columbia. He was a graduate of the liberal New York seminary, Union Theological Seminary. He was a social gospel advocate. He shaped the thinking of probably half of the high school graduates in America for half a century. You cannot find his textbooks in university libraries. Libraries don’t collect textbooks.