Farm, Shop, Landing: the Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860.
This is an intensive and comprehensive study of several decades of cultural and economic change in two rural counties in New York's mid-Hudson Valley. Greene and Columbia counties are split by the Hudson River approximately 100 miles north of New York City. In 1790 their combined population was thirty-five thousand and in 1850 it reached seventy-six thousand, a growth rate of about a third that of the United States as a whole in the same period. This compact population allows Martin Bruegel to examine regional change that had less to do with scale and growth than with cultural and economic innovation and adaptation. The preindustrial subsistence farm economy of the revolutionary era and its intimate system of labour and material exchange had by the eve of the Civil War evolved to a point where industrial and transportation technology, money, wage labour, divergent classes, secularism, democratic politics and material ambition were the dominant characteristics of the community. The simplicity, deference and communal interdependence of 1780 had given way to a pluralistic culture dominated by complex bourgeois economic conditions and values. In eighty years the society of the mid-Hudson valley had been transformed.
In socioeconomic histories of the early United States, including Bruegel's, monographs and case studies that include in their titles phrases such as "the transformation of' or "the roots of" or "the rise of" are now common. In fact, the author makes specific comparative reference to New England studies such as Christopher Clark's "roots" of rural capitalism, Jonathan Prude's "coming" of industrial order and Winifred Rothenberg's development "from" rural market places "to" a market economy. According to Farm, Shop, Landing, those and other studies show society changing to conform to the irresistible force of the modern market economy, the "invisible hand" of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Bruegel, by contrast, alleges that his subjects created or at least influenced their own economic relations with conscious and deliberate references to their cultural traditions and social needs. But the author's fine line between a society that shaped economic change, rather than one that adapted to or adjusted to it, is a bit tenuous. While his "goal ... te understand ... the social rules that governed commercial exchange" is a useful approach to socioeconomic change, he need not dismiss Rothenberg's "cliometric insights" as being limited by "abstraction from the social context" (p. 43). This is a straw-man argument. There is much human agency in Rothenberg's "frictionless markets" and the "rational calculations aimed at maximizing profits" of her subjects are as social as Bruegel's "relational considerations." After all, rational decisions in small-scale economic relations usually take place between or among socially alert participants.
It is not, in fact, the difference in visible or invisible causality that distinguishes Bruegel's analysis from the others but rather his presentation of a familiar process stated in a different way. Bruegel has mined his resources well and while this impressively researched book's primary economic and political evidence is as thorough as any, it is perhaps ficher than similar transformation monographs because of its splendid use of anecdotal material such as letters, diaries, newspapers, and travelogues. Bruegel touches briefly on most of the key developments in antebellum America, from the Erie Canal and the coming of the railroad, to race relations, poverty, immigration, and early Victorian material and moral culture. He offers a refreshing commentary on the improving status of local industrial and farming women and his note on the Second Great Awakening's failure to affect the mid-Hudson region emphasizes the exotic culture of the "burned over" district to the north. Still, the deep concentration on the mid-Hudson tends to be a bit claustrophobic and the reader would be relieved by more specific socioeconomic examples from other American regions or, preferably, by a running comparison with the overall transformation of American life.
For all the book's many virtues there is not a great deal here that is new or striking. Bruegel's analyses of rural work patterns or the commercial enterprises of shop and factory development in rural antebellum America seem familiar, and the effects of transportation technology and New York City's influence on the shaping of market society comes off as rather obvious, given the strategic location of his counties. To say that rural Americans were more alert to the demands of the clock in the first half of the nineteenth century than they had been decades earlier is hot surprising, nor is the emergence by 1850 of a triad of economic groups, of artisans, merchants and farmers, where a century before there were mostly farmers who also served as artisans or merchants.
Bruegel's writing is sure and effective for the most part, a credit to his writing in English as his second language, but there are many convolutions such as "The emergence of nature as an aesthetic category in American art around 1820 coincided with a moment in time when human diligence transformed it from an encompassing and mysterious world of insecurity into a repository of factors of production" (p. 64).
Intelligent application of theoretical models such as Max Weber's sociology and Fernand Braudel's culture of material life approach add intellectual breadth to the book, as do its deft postmodern touches. It remains, however, very much a local history, albeit a very sophisticated one. As an exhaustive case study it suggests some creative methodological approaches to social history, but it will be most useful to scholars as an addition to the growing regional historiography of socioeconomic change in the early decades of the United States.
Okanagan University College
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2003|
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