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Yankee Destinies: The Lives of Ordinary Nineteenth-Century Bostonians.

It has been two decades since the publication of Peter Knights' two excellent works, The Plain People of Boston and "Men in Motion" co-authored with Stephan Thernstrom (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Autumn, 1970). Released during the apex of the social mobility movement, the two works were unique in that they demonstrated greater interest in the spatial comings and goings of Bostonians than in their ability to move up or down the social ladder. "Men in Motion," a particularly important work, analyzed the incredible population transformation which occurred in America's cities during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Knights' ability and patience with meticulous detail enabled him to capture the hundreds of thousands of people who moved into and out of Boston during a span of one decade (1880-1890). He convincingly demonstrated that the excess of births over deaths accounted for only a portion of that city's growth. More significant was the huge number of in-migrants (789,000) and out-migrants (690,000) during the ten-year period.

This remarkable work stirred the interest of a generation of social historians and graduate students training to join the profession. Its contribution was to reveal the tremendous population turnover which was occurring in industrializing cities. While not the central thesis of the work, the authors did speculate on some of the possible reasons for this mobility and offered hypotheses regarding its impact on cities and their residents. They also suggested that, with new computing technology, it might be possible or at least desirable to trace some of the out-migraters to determine both their destination and their success, or lack thereof, in their second or third city. The challenge was stimulating and the potential results exciting. Some of us anxiously awaited Peter Knights' next book.

The lengthy wait has been both rewarding and disappointing. Yankee Destinies studies the lives of 2,808 white native-born male heads of households with both parents native-born who resided in Boston in 1860 or 1870. Tracing them both forward and backward through a wide variety of sources Knights determined that less than a fourth were born in Boston, that most in-migrants originally resided a relatively short distance from Boston, and that a kin-friend communication network led to their decision to move to Boston. Those who settled in Boston apparently liked the city. Approximately three-fifths made it their permanent home remaining until death. These "ordinary people", Knights informs, worked primarily at skilled occupations or owned their own businesses. Boston's immigrant class, primarily the Irish, did most of the unskilled work. Knights' systematic analysis examines every facet of life. The timing of marriage and the process of selecting a bride, family size and rate of infant mortality, and even pre-marital sex (approximately ten percent of the couples in the sample) are analyzed. Relationships are drawn among such variables as family size and wealth, migration status, and age at marriage. Working and living conditions and the hazards of life in nineteenth-century Boston (crime, traffic accidents, and sanitation) are meticulously examined. The concluding chapters of Yankee Destinies follows the course of the individual life cycles through to death. The small number who left Boston are traced to their ultimate geographic destination and eventually until their deaths. Perhaps because even the leavers lived in Boston for a long period of time, they did not travel very far. Less than ten percent of either sample group left the state of Massachusetts. Thus, at least for Native-American nineteenth-century Bostonians, the notion of a nation of island communities peopled by individuals jumping from one island to another is inaccurate. There may have been islands out there but they held no interest for this group.

Peter Knights' characterization of his sample population group as ordinary is appropriate. They migrated to the city at relatively young ages from a nearby village or town. Most secured ordinary jobs and married in their late twenties. Their brides were approximately four years younger. They raised families, worked, and tended to remain married until death. While a few died in industrial or other accidents, the great majority expired at home of the normal illnesses one associates with old age. Indeed they were ordinary.

The rewards of Yankee Destinies are a rich and valuable analysis of every aspect of life of a group and class of people who made up a large segment of every nineteenth city. Clearly through the regularness of their lives they provided a foundation for an urban society which was undergoing tremendous change. Robert Wiebe's classic work The Segmented Society suggests that a stable upper class maintained the society and gave it stability in a time of chaos and change. Peter Knights has uncovered another group whose stability and ordinariness provided a complementary order. It is most important evidence which provides a more thorough understanding of nineteenth-century urban life.

The work is somewhat disappointing to this reviewer, however, because Knights' earlier work promised so much. One anticipated a study which would add to the brilliant analysis begun with Plain People and "Men in Motion" Where did all those Bostonians go and what did they do? Did the communication networks which brought them to Boston also induce them to seek a few other promising cities? Did migration links, for example, exist between Boston and New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore? Or, did out-migrants scatter throughout the nation? Why did they leave a city with so much promise? Were they all first and second generation immigrants? What percent were economic failures in Boston? How many met with success in a second or third city?

It is irritating to read a review which comments on what one did not do rather than what one did. Yet in choosing a narrow and relatively safe universe for study, Peter Knights made it impossible to answer these larger questions. Boston, during the era Knights studied, contained a significant proportion of first and second generation immigrants also attempting to establish "ordinary lives." They probably made up a majority of the million and a half individuals moving into and out of the city. For many their stay was only long enough to be recorded on a single annual city directory survey. They were gone the next year. Why were their lives so different from the Yankees in Knights' sample? They too came from rural backgrounds. Most spoke English, although likely with a European accent. Was it religion, ethnicity, manners, work ethic, or a combination of each which contributed to their transient life? Were they unable to cope with Boston or did Bostonians refuse to accept them? And, where did these short timers go? One suspects that unlike the Yankees in Knights' sample most journeyed well beyond the borders of Massachusetts. Most of these questions were raised in the earlier works produced by Professor Knights. A comparative analysis would have contributed much toward resolving these fundamental but, as yet, unanswered questions.

Yankee Destinies is an important work. It contributes an important element to our understanding of the development of American urban society. Unfortunately it does not live up to the large expectations Peter Knights created with his earlier works.
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Author:Weber, Michael P.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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