OK so the term and concept modern is just too huge and complicated to make any sense in my dissertation. It might could work if I were directly debating Genovese and Wyatt-Brown on the issue of pre-modern and modern economic styles and cultural codes. But this is not 1987, and while I am fundamentally taking a stance on all that, I need to not get bogged down in that language.
So, I’m going to drop references to modern, and will need to stop calling religion modern religion as a counterpoint to traditional practice.
(Can’t do that without the question: what do you call a cultural movement that you know—from historical perspective—will prevail over its competitors, without privileging it with providential language?)
To be more specific, I am dealing with the term middle class. That right there is also a huge and complicated discussion, but it bears more directly on what I am investigating, so I’ve got to engage it. The definition of that term is difficult, as you can configure it to mean something that developed only in northern urban areas before the war, or an ideal that was adaptable and abroad in many parts of the United States. Fortunately, for my musings here, I can respond to one work, John Wells’ The Origins of the Southern Middle Class (2004), as the most succinct and recent definition and description of this slippery group of people.
So what does Wells describe? He’s very E.P. Thompsonian with his description—paying close attention to that point when a self-conscious articulation of class solidarity appeared (he’s got it in the early 1850s.) The middle class developed, according to Wells, because of cultural and commercial connections to the north. It consisted of middling and wealthy professionals in urban areas. What I like best is his acknowledgement that historical explanations for the middle class phenomena break down into two parts: economic and cultural.
That’s important to me because I’ve got this rhetorical stance that my subjects offer a unique example of middle-classiness because their aspirations preceded economic change. So, I’m responding to the economic part of the broader discussion. I’ve been largely ignoring the cultural side and I’m not sure why. It could be that discussions of southern culture almost universally revolve around slavery and the efforts to maintain racial dominance by white people. That is rarely considered a, well, modern or middle class position. It could also be that aside from Jan Lewis, Jane Censer and some others, that middle class family forms that I’ve been focusing on up to this point, has been the realm of historians who look at economic change (Mary Ryan, et. al.) But the point is that the issue of middle class values in tandem with economic change is just not an issue when you look at cultural causes. And that puts my argument into a so what’s the big deal category? I mean, look at my previous post and the business with the literate culture. Markets, literature, commerce, ideas—they were all over the place and available to everyone in the antebellum south. This shouldn’t even be an issue.
I think I need to do a couple of things. The first is this: it would be awesome if I could better articulate my people as embodying a Thompsonian process, rather than an anthropological description of a thing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these rural people who practiced middle class styles of faith, social relations, and marriage self-identified as a class. But they do represent the inworking of a set of ideas.
What are these ideas that constitute my definition of “middle class values?” Well, ok, they are, 1. Individual autonomy in religious practice (this is complicated but improved by Bob Elder’s conclusions about religion being a bridge between tradition and, uh, modernity), 2. social relations that prioritized harmony and forgiveness, 3. Companionate marriages and domesticity in the household.
(One place where my description differs from Wells’ is that I’m seeing domestic—southern, particularly religious—sources for middle class type behavior.)
The second thing is this: fix this in relation to Wells’ people. His are decidedly urban and urbane. Mine are rural and rustic. In fact, he sets his middle classers apart from country yeomen, which makes me think that I might be able to adopt that term. But yeoman is so connected to tradition and pre-modernism that I’d hate to use it. And it does something I am trying not to do: tie these ideas to specific economic indicators. I’m trying to demonstrate that these ideas kind of swished around and spilled over traditional historical boundaries of class. (Yes, they spilled upward more than downward, but they are still very fluid.) This is also why I’m steadfastly refusing to give slave- and land-owning markers to these ideas and my people. (But that will be the subject of an upcoming goals post.)
I have been using the term “ordinary” do describe my folks, largely because “common folk,” “yeoman,” “countrymen” (which I like), “poor whites” (which my people are not,) and any other such descriptor have already been used in ways that weight these people with characteristics I’m trying to avoid.
So, here’s the problem—I’ve got a definition (see above). I need a unique name. But I don’t want to fix that name to describe yet another class. I want it to represent a cultural movement, or process.
Should I just go with middle class? (Wish I could just call them “the Caleb Garths of the world.”)
And, how should I refer to modern religious practice, as opposed to traditional, if I am not using that term. (I’m not sure that locating it in such a dichotomy is really useful anyhow.)