The Spoken and the Written Word
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia during the Great Depression and World War II, I hadn’t the faintest notion that I would be bitten by the history bug and never recover from the fever it induced. But looking back over nearly six decades in the profession, I can discern the effect of words I read and words I heard–fragments that lodged unawares in my youthful consciousness.
The affliction of history-mindedness began with the high school U.S. history textbook we read—the runaway best seller David Muzzey’s An American History. Rereading it many years later, I saw that it was dreadful on race, silent on gender, but ahead of other textbooks in addressing unrestrained capitalism and industrial warfare. Muzzey had Indians displaying “stolid stupidity that no white man could match.” In the Reconstruction South, he pictured hopelessly inferior blacks conducting “an indescribable orgy of extravagance, fraud, and disgusting incompetence—a travesty of government.” Yet, “it was inconceivable,” he said, “that the great body of American citizens . . . will allow one tenth of their number to stagnate in abject poverty.” I did not know at the time whether these were historical truths or historical inventions. I read what was assigned and believed that whatever the textbook said must be true. But Muzzey did spark in me a fuzzy sense that not all was well in America, and this led me on Saturday jaunts to the majestic Philadelphia Public Library, where I delved into journalistic accounts of poverty, chain gang prison labor in the South, and racial violence.
For this high schooler in the late 1940s literature nourished my unformed sense of class and race consciousness. James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, John Dos Passos’s U.S.A Trilogy, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy staggered me since they did not conform to what we were taught in general at Lower Merion High School. Small bits of shrapnel were penetrating an adolescent but curious and unsettled mind.
Then I was off to college. It was not there that I discovered the power of the spoken word, for, like most American families, ours gathered around the radio to listen to President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats (which were far more than chats once World War II broke out). But at Princeton, where the history department’s faculty members took great pride in crafting eloquently delivered lectures, it took little more to know that history would be my major than hearing Walter Phelps “Buzzer” Hall’s lecture on Garibaldi, his brown shirts, and the unification of Italy; and E. H. “Jinx” Harbison’s lecture on Erasmus and the European Enlightenment. If any doubt remained, it vanished when witnessing Gordon Craig, the suave European diplomatic historian at the podium. Practicing his lectures in front of a mirror, he smoked from an elegant cigarette holder, inhaling and wreathing his head in smoke at appropriately dramatic moments while spreading wisdom about Metternich, the partitioning of Poland, or any other topic at hand. This sealed the deal.
My entry into the history profession as a Ph.D. student–delayed by three years in the U.S. Navy and three more as Assistant to the Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton–began at age twenty eight. Now it was time to read, not hear lectures. A line near the end of Tolstoy’s War and Peace struck me forcibly: “We must completely change the subject of our observation, “must leave kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved,” Intersecting with this notion was Margaret Mead’s antidote to top-down history: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” As if equipped with a magical new set of glasses, everything began to appear differently; I now had a way of seeing the limitations of many much revered history books and a research agenda that I could not reasonably expect to complete in my lifetime.
It was time to move from a top-down history to an inclusive history, where the agency of the lower orders could not reasonably be dismissed and where the historian was obliged to measure the role played by each of a society’s constituent parts as defined by class, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and ideology. And particularly attracting my interest were the forgotten bottom dwellers of history who worked with their hands and believed in the dignity of labor. My mentors, I soon discovered, lived on the other side of the pond, and they would have to teach me through the written word. The Norwegian-born British Marxist George Rude nourished my incipient ideas with his The Crowd in the French Revolution (1959), and Captain Swing: A Social History of the Great Agricultural Uprising of 1830 (1968), coauthored with Eric Hobsbawm. Another member of the British Communist Party, the Egyptian-born Hobsbawm, in his Primitive Rebels (1959), wrote movingly about the social resistance and extra-legal popular protests of those, before the organized industrial labor movement, became fighters for justice before the law and social avengers in search of a decent life when it could not be gained without confrontation, even if violence ensued. Between them, Rude and Hobsbawm dismissed the common theme of conventional historians that rioters in the pre-industrial Atlantic world were “mobs”—unthinking, sheep-like, liquor-fueled deadbeats who were directed, if directed at all, by manipulative masters using them for their own purposes.
I was by now reading the work of Marxists but without reading Marx. In the era of strident American McCarthyism, I was imbibing Marx second-hand, smoking but not inhaling. This continued with the book that most of all lay behind my The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (1979). This was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1968). I had already been struck by the central concept of the Budapest-born Karl Mannheim, disciple of Max Weber’s brother, in his Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (1936): “modes of thought . . . cannot be adequately understood as long as their social origins are obscured” and that “in every concept, in every concrete meaning, there is contained a crystallization of the experiences of a certain group.” This led me directly to Thompson’s denial of orthodox Marxism, “that classes exist, independent of historical relationship and struggle, and that they struggle because they exist.” Rather, he argued, classes came into existence out of particular struggles ignited by historical forces that were transforming the social and economic landscape.
Such were the intellectual pathways carved out across the Atlantic by historians whose interpretations of the past were greatly influenced by their activism in social movements swirling around them. They inspired me with their sympathy for the poorest and most vulnerable small holders and lower-end artisans of the societies they were studying; and they gave me models of analysis for making sense of the tax assessment lists, inventories of estate, poor house records, and other indices of social rank I was processing in my study of eighteenth-century Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Working myself in the Civil Rights movement, I tried to imagine, how social resentments and political radicalism grew at the lower echelons of urban society as war and economic dislocation in the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century fed into the crisis between the North American colonies and their English masters, eventuating in a dual American Revolution, both a struggle for independence and a multi-faceted agenda to reform America. The result was Urban Crucible and much of my work since then.
Gary B. Nash is Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author of numerous books, including Warner Mifflin: Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist, University of Pennsylvania Press (2017), The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. His book First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory is also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.