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Rethinking Home

Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History

Joseph A. Amato
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 261
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  • Book Info
    Rethinking Home
    Book Description:

    Joseph A. Amato proposes a bold and innovative approach to writing local history in this imaginative, wide-ranging, and deeply engaging exploration of the meaning of place and home. Arguing that people of every place and time deserve a history, Amato draws on his background as a European cultural historian and a prolific writer of local history to explore such topics as the history of cleanliness, sound, anger, madness, the clandestine, and the environment in southwestern Minnesota. While dedicated to the unique experiences of a place, his lively work demonstrates that contemporary local history provides a vital link for understanding the relation between immediate experience and the metamorphosis of the world at large. In an era of encompassing forces and global sensibilities,Rethinking Homeadvocates the power of local history to revivify the individual, the concrete, and the particular. This singular book offers fresh perspectives, themes, and approaches for energizing local history at a time when the very notion of place is in jeopardy. Amato explains how local historians shape their work around objects we can touch and institutions we have directly experienced. For them, theory always gives way to facts. His vivid portraits of individual people, places, situations, and cases (which include murders, crop scams, and taking custody of the law) are joined to local illustrations of the use of environmental and ecological history. This book also puts local history in the service of contemporary history with the examination of recent demographic, social, and cultural transformations. Critical concluding chapters on politics and literature--especially Sinclair Lewis'sMain Streetand Longfellow'sHiawatha--show how metaphor and myth invent, distort, and hold captive local towns, peoples, and places.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93633-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Richard O. Davies

    A newcomer’s initial reaction to southwest Minnesota is that it is a bland and sedate place, dominated by endless fields devoted to the production of corn and soybeans. But this seemingly timeless region has for the past 150 years been in a state of pervasive transformation.

    The region is no longer home exclusively to the traditional family farms of a few hundred acres. Vast drainage systems now crisscross the region, man-made adjuncts to the five rivers that flow through the area. Punctuating the rural vistas of enormous planted fields, each covering many square miles, are huge storage bins and silos,...

  5. INTRODUCTION: The Concept and the Practitioners of Local History
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book is neither a manual nor a guide to writing local history; nor is it a theoretical treatise on the nature of local history.¹ Instead, it is intended as a book that evokes fresh themes for and alternative ways of writing about home. In an era when national and international forces hold sway everywhere, I try to foster a passion for the local, for reviving those particular people, places, and events past that don’t demand but nevertheless need our careful attention.

    I have drawn this material from two decades of teaching at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota, and...

  6. CHAPTER 1 A Place Called Home
    (pp. 17-29)

    Local historians are often historians of home. The meaning of home shapes their works. It is the source of first feelings and impressions, of primary encounters; it is the subject of first memories, deep senses, and enduring passions.¹ Simultaneously the object of the most profound feelings, the subject of the greatest nostalgia, and a topic for a lifetime of rethinking, home is local historians’ measure of every other place.

    Home is first and foremost the house into which one is born. A secure home allows a person to inhabit the universe safely. Composed of a singular set of objects, each...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Grasses, Waters, and Muskrats: A Region’s Compasses
    (pp. 30-42)

    In the decades immediately after the Civil War, American civilization exploded onto the Midwestern prairie and plains. Whole new orders of society were erected, and nature was irrevocably altered.¹ Native peoples of the prairie were driven to the margins. Soils and waters were transformed. Plants and animals from the Old World were introduced intentionally and unintentionally, while native tall grasses of the prairie were pushed out and native animals such as the wolf, the grizzly bear, the buffalo, and the elk became nearly extinct. Armies, railroads, markets, the government, and the plow made the prairie a docile servant of agriculture...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Rule of Market and the Law of the Land
    (pp. 43-59)

    In rural areas, unless local historians choose irrelevance, they must suggest how the entire landscape has been molded by advancing civilization and how its cultivators—called yeomen, farmers, or agricultural operators—have been mutated into the servants of engulfing markets, intervening politics, and transforming sciences and technologies.

    In the decades preceding World War I, Western civilization converted entire ecosystems into croplands. Daniel Worster wrote: “About 432 million hectares (or about 1,067 billion acres of land) were converted worldwide to regular cropping. Of that total, 164 hectares were converted in North America, 88 million in Russia, and 84 million in Asia,...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Writing History through the Senses: Sounds
    (pp. 60-76)

    The countryside today is softer, quieter, and more colorful than it was a century ago, because of the immense economic and technological transformation of rural work and life. The control of water and fire, the introduction of electricity, the spread of public health reform, and the plethora of new materials and machines have altered the environments in which our senses operate. Today, rural residents hear, see, smell, taste, and touch a different world from that of their parents and grandparents. During the course of a mere century, rural people and their environments—every bit as much as urban people and...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Anger: Mapping the Emotional Landscape
    (pp. 77-96)

    As environmental control progressively transformed the landscape, so it correspondingly altered the range of human experience and expression. At least, I make that argument hoping it will stimulate local historians to consider writing of primary emotions and elemental human dispositions. Of course, by focusing here on anger, I do not wish to block historians from taking a more cheery route. I hope to set them also to writing about emotions such as love, happiness, and fear, and such dispositions as kindness, sympathy, and even sadness, jealousy, embarrassment, and guilt.

    As I write here of the gradual constriction of anger on...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Clandestine
    (pp. 97-112)

    Society constantly perceives or imagines transgressions, and these violations are a component of its collective memory. As the many possible forms and expressions of anger, complaint, and resentment show, the mind is a multidimensional and dark chamber. Much of what men and women do is hidden from the outer world and, at the same time, buried in the recesses of the mind. It is those realms, so terrifying and tantalizing, that create what I call the clandestine. Forever forming the hidden yet captivating side of human experience, the clandestine, in its many and mutable forms, must intrigue the local historian...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Madness
    (pp. 113-127)

    Madness pervades lives. It defines much of what individuals and communities take to be secretive, hidden, and threatening. No one escapes it. It is the groundwater of human existence. It belies the illusion of reason’s control and civilization’s dominance. As it engulfs individuals and communities, we all, at times, may fear ourselves to be mad, and our neighbors as well.

    Everyday language testifies to the ubiquitous presence of madness in human experience, especially when conflated, as it often is, with retardation. Besides such words asnuts, goofy, daffy, balmy, wacky, screwy, crazy,andbonkers,slang offers such phrases as “missing...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Madame Bovary and a Lilac Shirt: Literature and Local History
    (pp. 128-142)

    “No place is a place until the things that happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments,” wrote Wallace Stegner inWhere the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs.¹ So we are brought to the matter of literature, that great friend and certain enemy of imagination, which gives form to reality with evocative metaphor and moving sentiment, so often cheating us of the precise and ordinary truth of things. Literature can make wonderful wholes of pieces, and yet it can so facilely reduce the past to present conjuring.

    Novelists and poets can serve as true guides...

  14. CHAPTER 9 The Red Rock: Inventing Peoples and Towns
    (pp. 143-167)

    The local historian, as envisioned here, deals with much that is intangible and even imperceptible. He or she will write histories of the senses, emotions, the clandestine, and even madness. At the same time, he or she will recognize how much of the history of the countryside—its environment, society, peoples, and development—is inseparable from ideas, concepts, and literary sentiments and conventions. The local historian will forever confront the notion that the countryside, its places, its landscapes, and its communities are invented—that is, consciously fashioned, argued, and made a tradition. I attempt to show this in the following...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Business First and Always
    (pp. 168-184)

    Business history throws opens the door to the history of the prairie. Every village is an economic entity whose well-being is measured by profit and loss. The country town, however much it informs American sentiment and culture, is first and foremost about business. Importing dreams and laws as well as products and goods, business forms the principal purpose and lubricant of small towns. As reluctant as a cultural historian like me might be to admit it, business makes the whole countryside go.

    Business history, however, is no simple subject. Rather, it forms a network with endless branches for local and...

  16. CONCLUSION: The Plight of the Local Historian
    (pp. 185-192)

    The practice of writing local history can be viewed positively and negatively. Although I have espoused both views at times, I find neither adequate to describe what I have experienced as a practicing local historian over the last twenty years.

    Positively, local historians can be seen as serving a distinct community. They can inform rural leaders about who inhabits the region, about what is happening to its institutions, emerging trends, and so on. They delineate the perimeters of the possible and impossible. They can offer protection to all but the most gullible, foolish, and desperate against preachers of rural development...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 193-220)
  18. Acknowledgments and Sources
    (pp. 221-232)
  19. Index
    (pp. 233-245)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 246-246)