Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1981, pp. 211-23.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In the last ten years the "new social history" and its stepchild the "new urban history" have become the dominant sub field s within the history discipline; but the "new rural history" remains an orphan child with little recognized place as yet in academic curricula or historical writings.1 Unlike urban history, which is studied as a coherent whole, aspects of rural history are usually discussed under such rubrics as the westward movement, agricultural history, land history, frontier development, Indian history, and so forth.

The implicit assumption behind this disjointed scholarly perception is that rural history is an incongruity in the last decades of the twentieth century. It is true that electricity and the automobile have virtually wiped out the boundary line between rural and urban commumtles, and the rural economy is intertwined with urban industry and commerce.

Rurality as a distinct way of life is on the decline and may well disappear in our lifetime. Nevertheless, until the late nineteenth century, most Americans lived in rural communities. To study the development and subsequent history of these communities is vital to an understanding of American history. Urban historians and geographers certainly recognize the importance of the rural environs in which their cities emerged and acknowledge the interdependence of cities and hinterland. Even at the present time, nonmetropolitan communities, which contain one-third of the total United States population and 90 percent of the land area, remain an important national force, politically and socially.2


There are cultural, historiographical, and methodological reasons for the scholarly neglect of rural life. The cultural reason is that most professional historians since World War II are urban-oriented. They live and teach in urban universities and naturally respond to urban issues and problems. Eugen Weber, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and a leading historian of rural France, frankly admitted to this bias in a 1976 book:

The history I thought and taught and wrote about went on chiefly in cities; the countryside and little towns were a mere appendage of that history, following, echoing, or simply standing by to watch what was going on, but scarcely relevant on their own account.3

There is also a historiographical bias. The consensus school of American history, which gained dominance in the profession in the 1950s under the leadership of Richard Hofstadter, lauded the liberal reform tradition, especially the urban progressives and New Dealers. Urbanites were reformers by tradition, in this view, whereas rural Americans were reactionaries, seeking to restore the lost world of Thomas Jefferson. They were wounded yeomen who espoused anti-Semitism and used conspiracy theories to explain their suffering in the new international economic order. Rural Americans were also anti-intellectual book burners, religious fundamentalists, prudish Victorians, and teetotaling moralists who foisted their lifestyle on hapless urbanites with the Prohibition Amendment. At the same time, Hofstadter's demeani~g portrayal of rural Americans is puzzling, given his insightful and often quoted statement that "the United States was born in the country and moved to the city."4

While the liberal tradition has denigrated farmers at the expense of urbanites, scholars of agricultural history and the westward movement remain captive to an older tradition of frontier individualism and democracy. This legacy from the towering figure of Frederick Jackson Turner stresses environmental forces in the early evolutionary stages of the frontier process but neglects the more important storythe rise and decline of rural communities as they cope with the disintegrating forces of modern mass society. Thus, rural historians have suffered from a distorted perspective of the meaning of rural life.