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Of Dustbowl Ballads and Railroad Rate Tables: Erudite Enactments in Historical Inquiry


History is a heavily document-driven field. The character of these documents varies from era to era and from case to case, and their content constitutes what can be broadly called “historical information.” Historical information, however, is not fixed, stable, or even cumulative; rather, it is enacted through the epistemic culture and practices of historians. Our study of two well-known historical cases in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the monopolistic practices of railroad operators in the American West and the Dust Bowl phenomenon in the Midwest—show how historians enact information by adopting a fluid strategy toward their sources of information and their changing notions of evidence. At the same time, they also show that these enactments maintain a certain degree of consistency and continuity with the overall body of knowledge of the scholarly community, giving them a more “educated” character and differentiating them from the routine enactments of daily life. In this article, we explore the historiographical practices engaged by historians that enable this kind of enactment.

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