Timothy R. Mahoney narrates the myriad encounters and responses that middle-class participants in Midwest boosterism experienced during the economic trauma between the panic of the 1850s and the Civil War. Throughout these decades the book's characters redefined their own geographic, social, and cultural spaces as they grappled with the importance that their hometowns played within regional and national frameworks. His two main themes are the redefinition of social class and redefinition of hometown life. Mahoney begins by describing the rise of the middle class in towns such as Davenport and Dubuque, Iowa, and Galena, Illinois. Boosters worked to ensure that the expanding rail networks benefitted these towns. However, the economic collapse of 1857 brought “Hard Times” to the region (p. 5). To maintain solvency, the middle-class investors in railroad companies relied on more stable financial institutions in eastern cities, eroding the do-it-yourself ethos of regional boosterism. The Civil War further upended old systems of patronage upon which the hometown middle-class ethos depended. The increasing bureaucracy necessary to manage the Union army created a new merit-based upward mobility among technocrats, many of whom came from the professional class. Nevertheless, Mahoney demonstrates that a system of patronage and hometown boosterism persisted, as when we observe Rep. Elihu Washburn's efforts to elevate Ulysses S. Grant into military leadership, a maneuver that benefited many of the technocrats who later sought positions in Grant's administration. There was another redefinition of hometown life during these decades. Many of the middle-class residents who had the means after the recession either relocated farther west or took leave to tour Europe. As such, new social networks were forged into what Mahoney calls “trans-local communities.” His discussion of the European tours is less convincing, as those tours did little to create new social networks. The relocated midwesterners in distinct enclaves in the Pacific Northwest, however, do illustrate social connections across geographic distance. It would have served Mahoney well to return to that theme more explicitly when he discusses the relocation of middle-class veterans to cities such as Chicago in the later 1860s. As a result, the once-touted hometowns of opportunity withered economically and socially, and residents remade these localities into “small towns” with a bedrock of values contrary to the expanding influences of corporate and federal bureaucracies. Mahoney would have aided himself by discussing the contrast between the “‘hometown’ world view—rooted in capitalism, individualism, Christianity, and gentility”—and the world view in the new urban centers of the Middle West (p. 61). Readers can get so lost in the microscopic details that they lose sight of the broader patterns that Mahoney illustrates. There is also a tension in this book about which redefinition (that is, of social class or of hometown) is the dominant theme. However, as the epilogue makes apparent, these redefinitions are symbiotic, remaking America's postwar, industrial destiny. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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