- Rethinking Home. A Case for Writing Local History
The problem with traditional writings that fall under the heading of 'local history' is precisely that they tend to be rather too local—they lack reference to any greater whole. This is well known to everyone involved in history. They also know that such works are often very dull: there is a lack of overview, authors lose themselves in the fine details without recognizing their significance, and the material often seems addressed to only a highly restricted audience. Much local history lies on the borders of what one would consider 'academic', tending to be produced by or with the support of amateur historians and therefore failing to reach through to professional historians. But worst of all, these works habitually lack the passion to grip and hold on to their readers' attention, to carry them off into the underworld of the past in the way that history can do when at its best. In fairness, this last failing is perhaps not solely a problem for local historians—the entire subject has to grapple with the reader's attention, with unequal success, as the examples prove.
Joseph Amato's book Rethinking Home. A Case for Writing Local History is not conventional local history, still less a conventional work of history in the accepted sense of the word. It is an unusual and compelling discourse on the past with real power to take its readers by surprise. Amato is a Frenchman taken on by a little institution in the US Midwest (Southwest State College), in a small community of around 12,000 people called Marshall, where he taught for several decades. In the book he focuses on the history of southwestern Minnesota, but against a background of his former specialist area of study, contemporary European intellectual history. This is certainly an unconventional blend and one that has clearly had a constructive influence on his life and work in the field.
Rethinking Home tells the story of this region, which is interesting in its own right, while simultaneously presenting a powerful defense of the practice of local history. To achieve this dual purpose, the author adopts an unusual approach that consists in standing forward boldly in his own right and putting himself into the text in a more conspicuous way than we customarily find in historical works, especially those that deal with the methodology of specific branches of history. As a consequence the book is written with the passion of a scholar who has woven his subject into the fabric of his own life, in a literal sense. The problems are everywhere apparent, as he readily acknowledges:
Like any passion, writing local history can bring pain and disappointment. Aside from the lack of time, money, skills, and collaborations, local historians often find [End Page 518] themselves writing for small, poor, and diminishing audiences. And even when supported by a rare university appointment, they may not find allies among administrators, students, or faculty members, who frequently have little historical understanding of or affection for the locale.(9)
Amato's approach, which he applies with energy and commitment, not only awakens a desire in his readers to share his journey with him but also enables him to demonstrate with great conviction exactly what it is that local history has to offer the present. In this he stands by the promise made in the subtitle of his book, to provide "a case study for local history."
The writer traces the history of the region from cultural, social and economic perspectives, bringing out the connections between the agriculture of the area and the development of the market, both locally and farther afield. He applies his concepts with systematic rigor, establishing interrelationships between society and nature and linking together different parts within the whole area covered in the book in order to bring out how different sizes and spheres of society work upon each other. These spheres include the home, institutions, labor, and people, including himself—all...