Prelim Readings: Nativists, Populists, and Racists

Sadly only got to three books yesterday.

Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. This is a fun read, tracking the comet-like rise and fall of Long and Coughlin during the 1930s, with the climax in 1935. Brinkley sees Long and Coughlin’s brief success in their ability to give voice to the anxieties of small farmers, conservative workers, and other members of the middle class who lamented the passing of small-town community interactions in the face of centralization and industrialization of American economy and society. The bad guys were financiers and bankers (for Coughlin) and the wealthy (for Long); the solution was government–but not big or centralized government. And there’s the rub, because Long and Coughlin were fighting against modernization, a force that could truly only be stopped with some sort of radical economic change–like a big, centralized government–which Long, Coughlin, and their followers were unwilling and unable to consider such an alternative. It’s a story of American political character (in the Hartzian liberal tradition), middle-class anxiety, and demagoguery. Fun stuff.

John Higham’s Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. Higham sees three traditions in American nativism: anti-Catholicism, anti-radical, and racial nationalism. These rear their ugly heads in different degrees throughout this period in American history, usually during times of economic crisis/tension. This works for the late 1880s and 1890s (Haymarket, Homestead, Pullman), but as he admits in the epilogue, material conditions didn’t connect to nativism during the 1920s, when the US passes its most stringent immigration laws (1921 Emergency Immigration Act, 1924 National Origins Act). That said, his identification of the different strands of nativism is helpful, as his explanation of the development of racial nationalism, which required some scientific slight-of-hand (courtesy of eugenicists) to overcome the positive implications of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Way better than Daniels’s Guarding the Door.

Katherine Blee’s Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Holy shit this was weird. The second Klan got crazy powerful during the 1920s in Indiana, and it infiltrated every aspect of life: parades, weddings, funerals, junior auxiliaries, and, of course, women’s Klan chapters. The WKKK, though, rejected the female-submission aspects of the KKK, instead providing women with an organization through which they could form social bonds as well as act in highly political ways, such as helping each other get to the polls (remember: 19th amendment in 1920), boycotting Catholic and Jewish establishments, and spreading rumors about community members. Blee wants to argue that this demonstrates that not all right-wing women activists are submissive conservative types; I say “meh.” But she does a great job showing how pervasive the Klan was during the 1920s. Scary shit.

Over the next two days, I’ve got about ten books to read in order to catch up. I’ll be reading some under the influence of beer and with fireworks as my reading light. Stay tuned.

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