Is it ever enough to just be interesting?
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about all we have learned so far this semester as it relates to my final project, a historical atlas of the JA Ranch: biases, agenda, themes, the role of civic education, myth, and maps of the imagination. It’s getting complicated.
But what is my argument for this atlas? I’ve been approaching this project as a way to ask a question about whether Iva’s story connects to a larger purpose or value beyond memoir. The implied argument is that it does, or I wouldn’t be spending time on it in the first place.
My research so far indicates that there’s not a lot of written history about west Texas in the early part of the 20th century, even less about the Panhandle Plains, and precious little about the JA Ranch. A substantial portion of what is out there consists of memoirs. Part of the challenge is that very few people actually lived there, and few of them as individuals are of much historical note. The cowboy as most people imagine him disappeared by the end of the 19th century. Do the experiences of ranch hands and their families in the 1920’s have anything to teach or entertain a larger audience?
My professor in Detection and Modern Society is a cultural historian. He made the observation in tonight’s class that cultural history is distinct from other histories in that “stuff is happening and no one is in charge.” It is unlike other historical approaches wherein someone is giving direction and others are responding to that. That’s perhaps a simplistic view of things, but it seems to describe my struggle with defining an argument for this project.
One of the arguments of cultural historians is that industrialization produced a profoundly different person, perhaps even physiologically, from pre-industrial people. The industrial revolution introduced changes to family, social, and work culture in ways that raised questions about identity and the nature of the self. To suggest that the explorers of 1492 were essentially the same “selves” as the people who will eventually go to Mars is ahistorical. If this is so, then the ranch hands in the 1920’s were straddling this shift from agrarian to industrial society, and Iva’s personal story reflects this (she and her husband moved to California in the 1930’s and her husband worked at Mare Island during WWII.) Have I erred in looking backward from the 1920’s? Should I be looking forward instead? Help meeeeeeeee.