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  • ReflectionsLooking Back at Social History
  • Paul E. Johnson (bio)

I became a social historian in the late 1960s, and I am still at it. The field has gone through three metamorphoses during my working lifetime: its birth in social science and quantification, its love affair with British Marxism, and the theoretical pileup that we call the Cultural Turn. I have contributed nothing to theorizing those transformations, but I have experienced all of them at first hand. What follows is a brief account of my personal history within academic social history over the past forty years.

I grew up in lower-middle-class Los Angeles, went to what was then Los Angeles State College, and transferred to Berkeley in 1963. I graduated, returned to Los Angeles, and drove a taxi on the midnight shift for two years. Whatever else that taught me, it did make me a democrat: many of the Mexicans and questionable whites with whom I grew up (not to mention the people who flag down taxicabs at 3 a.m.) were smarter than me. Many were funnier, many had better intuitive understandings, some greeted the world with humane sensibilities that I will never match. I would have found a mediocre place among them had it not been for the test-taking meritocracy and the welfare state: I traveled from kindergarten through Ph.D. in the California public schools—at a time when California cared about public schools—with a lot of help from make-work jobs and government-insured loans. Along the way I had good teachers. I earned two of my rare high school A's in Elmore Shipman's classes and decided to be a history teacher. At L.A. State, Jean Maloney (bless her Scottish soul) pulled me out of her remedial writing course, told me that I could already write, and tutored me and talked with me while I practiced.

Then there was Berkeley. I was there for the Free Speech Movement and the early opposition to the Vietnam War. I wrote my senior thesis at a Telegraph Avenue coffee house, on the table at which Alan Ginzberg had reputedly written Howl. I heard Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk in San Francisco. I saw Joan Baez on the roof of a police car that we had surrounded, heard Bob Dylan in a high school auditorium, saw the Oakland Tactical Squad throw my friends down flights of stairs. I read Hobbes and Locke, Unamuno, lots of history, the Upanishads, Gregory Corso, and who knows what else, listened to [End Page 379] the jazz music played in the late 1950s and early 1960s; and thought through all the big questions. Two years at Berkeley, and the world was permanently bigger and a lot more fun.

I began graduate study at UCLA in 1967 and found colleagues whose own trajectories had taken them to where I was: we wanted to be historians, and we wanted to Serve the People. The New Social History reached UCLA at about that time, and I was trained as a quantitative social science historian. I learned that "literary" evidence and the kinds of history that could be written from it were inherently elitist and untrustworthy. Our cousins, the Annalistes, talked of ignoring heroes and events and reconstructing the more constitutive and enduring "background" of history. Such history could be made only with quantifiable sources. The result would be a "History from the Bottom Up" that ultimately engulfed traditional history and, somehow, helped to make a Better World. Much of this was acted out with mad-scientist bravado. One well-known quantifier said that anyone who did not know statistics at least through multiple regression should not hold a job in a history department. My own advisor told us that he wanted history to become "a predictive social science."

I never went that far. I was drawn to the new social history by its democratic inclusiveness as much as by its system and precision. I wanted to write the history of ordinary people—to historicize them, put them into the social structures and long-term trends that shaped their lives, and at the same time resurrect what they said and did. In...


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