History's U-Turns Can Be The Best Guide to Present, Future

Contemporary issues grew out of 19th-century agendas


By Suellen Hoy

Oxford University Press

258 pp., $25


By Lynne Vallone

Yale University Press

226 pp., $50


University of New Mexico Press, 64 pp., $24


By Robert H. Wiebe

University of Chicago Press 321 pp., $25.95


By David E. Shi

Oxford University Press

394 pp., $35


By Carroll Pursell

358 pp., $45 (cloth), $15.95 (paper)


Edited by George F. Thomson

University of Texas Press

301 pp., $55 (cloth), $24.95 (paper)

NOT too long ago, the approaching millennium was envisioned as a streamlined utopia. Kids soared to school via jet-packs; families arrived home to nutritious meals beamed hot from a central kitchen.

Now, with the 21st century within hailing distance, the year 2000 looks like any other new year. The past attracts us more than the future. History's U-turns seem aptly to mirror our current speculations on the next decade.

The ways in which the past enfolds the future is the subject of several accessible and comprehensive studies published this spring by the university presses.

These new books resolutely moor large contemporary issues from our everyday lives -- matters as mundane as cleanliness, as vital as democratic pluralism, as psyche-wrenching as technological change, as basic as gender roles -- to common origins. In each case, historical examination enlarges the notions that inform us about them.

In Chasing Dirt: the American Pursuit of Cleanliness, Suellen Hoy traces the modern notion of hygiene from its origin in 19th-century reform movements to its peak in the immediate post-World War II era.

Through vivid anecdotes drawn from domestic and corporate life, Hoy establishes how patriotism, social progress, and visions of personal advancement were orchestrated to change national standards. In the 1970s, concern with outdoor pollution was appended to the quest for cleanliness.

Ironically, environmentalism targets excessive packaging and litter, a significant proportion of which is produced for cleanliness products. Hoy concludes that in the 1990s, we are not as clean as we used to be. With more men and women working away from home, domestic standards have altered.

Historically, women have been mainstays of household order. Throughout childhood, girls were trained to nurture and to reform personal character. In an analysis of housekeeping advice and instructional manuals, as well as legal practices, social institutions, and literary sources, Lynne Vallone explores Disciplines of Virtue: Girls' Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

By demonstrating the spectrum of cultural concern with girlhood, Vallone hopes to constitute female adolescence as a subject in contemporary feminist thought. Her discussion dwells on the repressive aspects of culture. Hence, the book occasionally obscures how creativity and fine feeling can persist despite social restrictions.

A recent exhibition catalog, For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, demonstrates both the solace of sisterhood and the range of women's imaginative enterprise. The celebrated 19th-century photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, had been using the camera for about a year when she sent her invalid sister Mia a large album of mostly blank pages.

In the succeeding years, Cameron filled the album with photographs ranging from depictions of family life to striking portraits of prominent painters and writers, like William Holman Hunt and Alfred Tennyson. Cameron's ingenious integration of personal and public life in the so-called Mia Album bespeaks the accomplishment possible for women within the dominant values of Victorian life.

The subordinate social status of women highlights a historical paradox discussed in Robert H. Wiebe's, Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy. Wiebe recounts the development of American democracy, a genuinely progressive idea and political practice that in its original form excluded women and persons of color.

As democracy gave the vote to more citizens, greater personal freedom was not necessarily achieved. Throughout the century, the apparatus of democratic government could be used to exclude many voices. Moreover, Wiebe argues, a century of consumerism has etched away political involvement and community values.

Wiebe's last chapter, a meditation on the future of American democracy grounded in historical precedent, beneficially reviews the opinions of many contemporary thinkers. After hearing Wiebe's argument that America has been at war with itself for much of this century, readers may find his concluding voice disconcertingly upbeat.

Having drawn a severe picture of a nation polarized by competing versions of individualism and majority rule, Wiebe still finds in history ample reason to be enthusiastic about the future. He reminds us that democracy has enlarged unevenly, often through political participation that is not always soft-tongued.

In effect, David E. Shi's Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850-1920, traces a parallel history to Wiebe's ''Self Rule.'' ''Facing Facts'' recounts how realism evolved as an intellectual and artistic stance from the mid-19th century through the early years of the present century.

Synthesizing ideas from social thought, natural science, literature, and the visual arts, Shi shows how the 19th-century mania for facts transformed into an avid societal concern with the effects of poverty and other forms of societal ills, in short, the emergence of the social sciences.

Although realism emphasized verifiable information and earthly

matters, it was informed by ardent moral beliefs and rival social philosophies. Oddly enough, American realism conceded the cultural high ground to a largely European modernism. Philosophy turned inward and vague. The world of appearance lost its hold on the imagination, especially in jarring art movements like Cubism. In the first decades of the 20th century, social invention did not keep pace with aesthetic innovation.

Shi culminates his smooth-as-custard account of American realism with an appeal for its revival. ''We cannot afford to abandon the larger social scene, nor can we ignore the aesthetic pleasures contained in unadorned fact.''

Like Wiebe and Shi, Carroll Pursell, author of The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology, centers on the ramifications of citizen participation and social agendas. His is not a tale in which machines beget machines with weary inevitability. Technological consequences happen because of human decision-making. Pursell maintains that ''technology not subordinated to our highest political aspiration has become a bulwark of our worst.'' From the colonial adaptation of old-world technology to the rise of American cities, vast transportation systems, the military-industrial complex, and agribusiness, he presents a guide for the nonspecialist.

Pursell firmly situates technology in the cultural mold that shaped it. For instance, the American expansion westward facilitated the development of new plows, rakes, and harvesters.

Although he does not elaborate the commercial, social, and political elements of contemporary informed choice, Pursell maintains that understanding technological change as the result of human behavior will enable clearer thinking about the future.

The idea of choice is mirrored in Landscape in America, a compilation of wide-ranging essays edited by George F. Thompson. These originally commissioned writings do not forget the sublimity of vast spaces and high mountains, but prefer to suffuse the ordinary experience of our surroundings with special historical and aesthetic significance.

Articles by historians trace the changing social signification of the American landscape from the Hudson River Valley to the Far West. Contemporary fiction writers, like Leslie Marmon Silko and William Kittredge, inscribe the concept of landscape with personal speculations on the way in which people are shaped by place. Essays by geologists, painters, horticulturists, and planners reflect on the variety of American landscape. Likely enough, the prints, photographs, and paintings that illustrate ''Landscape in America'' emphasize the presence of landscape in routine experience.

The diversity of everyday experience implied in these books delineates the complexity of tomorrow in terms of yesterday.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to History's U-Turns Can Be The Best Guide to Present, Future
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today