That Pessimism Which is Really Optimism

The Populist Vision Charles Postel, 2007

Charles Postel won the Bancroft Prize for this book about “how Americans responded to the traumas of technological innovation, expansion of corporate power, and commercial and cultural globalization in the 1880s and 1890s.” (vii) Populists, Postel says, were “influenced by modernity and sought to make America modern.” (vii)  Throughout the book, Postel shows rural people embracing change, and especially technological change that made their work and lives easier and more rewarding.  This view, he says, challenges the dominant strain of thought (especially Hofstadter), that sees rural people and especially populists as cranky victims of change, who looked back nostalgically to an earlier age when the rest of the world shared their agrarian “producer” philosophy.  A key example is the populist approach to railroads. Postel never suggests this new technology didn’t radically improve life in the countryside. The issue was, how should these new technological enterprises be organized, and for whose benefit?

This is a refreshing change, and it reframes the issue in a way that's relevant today. Postel gives regular people a lot of credit for intelligence, political awareness, and active involvement in the key issues of their day. He begins his introduction with a description of how a voluntary association of florists (a coop) “embraced the new technology” of the telegraph, which had “annihilated time and space” (3). They standardized their businesses and products to allow the customer to order uniform products that could be delivered across town or across continents. All by themselves, these scattered florists became FTD. Populists "believed in the transforming power of science and technology,” Postel says. “They believed in economies of scale...they believed in the logic of modernity” (4). Just as important, he shows that they understood these issues perhaps better than we do now. “Populism was known as ‘a reading party’ and a ‘writing and talking party’ ” (4). It is as important to understand what the Populists “were for” as what they were against, says Postel. If they were pessimistic (as Turner and Hofstadter claimed), then Postel says it was with
Hamlin Garland’s “kind of pessimism which is really optimism...that is to say, people who believe the imperfect and unjust can be improved upon” (my italics, 11).

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Postel also explores the connection between Populists and labor activists. Although the standard story is that they could never get together because farmers were proprietor/employers and wage workers were not, Postel finds many examples of cooperation, especially among rural workers. “Farmers were often part-time coal miners, and coal miners often farmed to supplement their diet and income” (19). This approach shows a greater sensitivity to conditions on the ground than many other historians who stick to the categories. But Postel is also quick to point out problems with the populist vision, such as when it veered toward racism and advocated majoritarian, government/industrial organization on a scale that would later (elsewhere) be called fascist.

If farmers had any antipathy toward universities, Postel says, it was only because rather than catering to rural needs, the schools “seemed to lavish resources on future lawyers, doctors, ministers, and other professionals” (47). So once again, their objection is not to change itself, but to who benefits from the change. Many farmers took their educations into their own hands. It was the “great equalizer in commerce, technology, and social standing,” so they “built lecture circuits across some thirty states, and a network of approximately one thousand weekly newspapers” (49).

I have to pause here a moment. This is jumping out at me right now, as I think about preparing to be a college-level teacher. To a great extent, the early 20th century rise of professionalism and universities in America killed off this 19th century type of local self-education. But today, the web opens a possibility for people to take control of their own educations again. I think I need to spend some quality time thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and for whom?

Postel's book is also full of interesting people and things to research someday: Charles Macune, Luna Kellie, Marion Cannon, the National Cordage and the National Union Company (did the 1893 National Cordage bankruptcy precipitate the stock market crash?), the Gulf and Interstate Railway Company (north-south transcontinental), William Peffer, 2nd class postage and RFD, Anna Fader Haskell, who sounds like a 19th century female version of Tyler Durden, and doesn’t even have her own wiki page! Marion Todd (1893,
Railways of Europe and America), Daniel Weaver, a Chartist who tried to organize coal miners in the 1860s, and of course Darrow v. Bryan at the Skopes Monkey Trial (1925), and Eugene V. Debs.