AMERICAN POPULISM: A Social History 1877-1898 by

AMERICAN POPULISM: A Social History 1877-1898

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A brief, crisp account of ""the Pentecost of Politics"" that energized farmers in America's heartland in the last third of the 19th century. Historians have generally regard this agrarian movement from three vantage points: as a forerunner of Progressive reforms (John Hicks); as a failed attempt to create a more humane economic order (C. Vann Woodward and Lawrence Goodwyn); or as a clark expression of latent anti-intellectual and intolerant impulses in the American character (Richard Hofstadter). McMath (History/Georgia Institute of Technology) has created a reasonable argument that incorporates some elements of all of these views. Although finding that many Populists shared the prevailing prejudices of the time against blacks and women, he argues that this political upsurge ""fashioned a space within which Americans could begin to imagine alternative futures shaped in the promise of equal rights."" Recent research at the state and local levels not only enables the author to critique previous historians of Populism but also to demonstrate the bewildering variety of regional differences in the South, Midwest, and West that complicated Populism's organizing efforts. McMath is especially helpful in analyzing the economic pressures, the community activities, and the ""cultures of protest"" from which sprang the Farmers' Alliance and its later, more famous offshoot, the People's Party. True, his treatment of the free silver issue that William Jennings Bryan rode to fame seems offhand, and he doesn't weigh adequately the Populists' role in passing reform legislation. But he does show how the movement tried--though ultimately failed--to make common cause with other reform groups such as labor, suffragettes, prohibitionists, and, moot tragically, southern blacks, who were as victimized as poor whites by the sharecropping system. A rewarding examination of how a protest movement was fanned into being, only to flame out.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1992
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: "Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux"