Email this review


Walter Nugent, who has written extensively about late-19th-century America, here joins the ranks of those historians proclaiming that demography has given their sovereign a new suit of clothes; but readers of this 150-page essay are likely to see things differently. Nugent's argument--drawing upon the work of Malthus, Fernand Braudel, Frederick Jackson Turner, and ""modernization"" theorists--is that the history of American society can be viewed as the succession of three ""modes"" or ""structures,"" each defined by a different rate of population growth: a Frontier-Rural Mode (1720-1870), in which population grew very rapidly; a Great Conjuncture (1870-1920) of urban and rural modes, in which population growth declined dramatically; and a Metropolitan Mode (1920-2020), in which the rate of population growth stabilized again at a much lower level. By 2020, Nugent guesses, the American population may actually begin to contract slowly, ushering in a new phase of American social life unlike anything that preceded it. Now it is certainly useful to be reminded that the press of population on available resources often has more to do with the ebb and flow of human society than do the intentions of its ruling classes (Malthus, Braudel). It is likewise interesting to be offered a framework for the ""total history"" of American society in which the frontier has a decisive role again (Braudel, Turner). And it is indeed unusual to hear that such a history suggests a ""brightly bourgeois"" future for America in the 21st century (Malthus, ""modernization"" theory). But it soon becomes apparent that Nugent's grand ""structures,"" for all their demographic trappings, consist essentially of rearrangements of familiar material (migration, immigration, urbanization, industrialization) and add little if anything to our understanding of how and why American society developed as it did. The problem is that population trends are themselves only dependent variables--the consequences of more profound changes in social organization and social relations, not the cause of them. The emperor's new clothes, it turns out, are hand-medowns, pinned and basted to improve their appearance, but not worth the fuss.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
Publisher: Indiana Univ. Press