Shane Hamilton

 

On his book Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy

Cover Interview of May 01, 2009

The wide angle

I began research on this project not so much because I was fascinated with truckers, trucking culture, or big rigs, but because I wanted to understand how transformations in rural life played into broader cultural and economic shifts in the United States in the mid-twentieth century.  Most scholars who write about rural life in the second half of the twentieth century focus on the “death of the family farm” or on the plight of migrant workers on factory farms.  I was searching for a way to shift the focus of agricultural history away from the farm fields and towards the consumers’ end of the food chain.  I wanted to understand how the rise of agribusiness not only led to the decline of small-scale farming but also how the lives and politics of urban and suburban consumers were transformed during this period.

I was deeply influenced in this regard by William Cronon’s seminal work, Nature’s Metropolis, which tells the story of Chicago’s rise to industrial prominence in the late 19th century by focusing on its technological connections to the rural hinterlands of what was then called the “Great West.”  Like Cronon’s work, my book focuses on changing transportation technologies and economic linkages between city and country in order to tell a much broader story about the nature of American capitalism.  In contrast with Cronon’s work, however, my book delves deeply into the social histories of the people—in this case, truckers—who helped shift American capitalism into overdrive in the late twentieth century.

The book ranges from analyses of country music to the business practices of meatpackers and the politics of transportation deregulation.  This intertwining of social history and historical political economy is very much a product of my doctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.  Working with Deborah K. Fitzgerald, Meg Jacobs, Lizabeth Cohen (at Harvard), and Brian Balogh (at Virginia), I was introduced to a stream of literature in what is often called “new political history.”

This line of research—much of which has been published by Princeton, in their series on Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America—integrates “bottom-up” social history with more traditional “top-down” policy history.  It is, in many ways, a reaction to both the successes and failures of overtly social history that flourished from the 1960s through the 1990s.  For the social historians who by and large defined the historical profession’s agenda throughout this period, older political history had focused too much on politically powerful white men, ignoring the social experiences of women, minorities, immigrants, and working-class Americans.  Despite the importance of the contributions made by social historians, by the 1980s many historians began to worry that the field had become overly fragmented, with no central narratives holding together American history.  In response, a generation of younger historians has begun, over the past two decades, to work hard to integrate the insights of social history while reviving interest in the policy decisions and political structures that shape Americans’ daily lives.

Most of the key works in this “new political history,” however, have by and large ignored the social and economic history of rural America.  This oversight is understandable; by the end of the twentieth century, after all, less than two percent of the U.S. population was directly engaged in agriculture, and the overwhelming majority of Americans lived in metropolitan regions of the nation.  But as I strove to demonstrate in Trucking Country, the social experiences and material worlds of rural Americans were central, rather than peripheral, to the transformation of U.S. politics and economic concerns over the course of the twentieth century.

In this sense, my book contributes to a recent resurgence of interest in agricultural and rural history—perhaps best evidenced by the runaway success of Michael Pollan’s 2005 bestseller, Omnivore’s Dilemma—as Americans who are largely alienated from the rural sources of their foodstuffs become increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, who produces it, and what are the environmental and economic implications of their food purchasing practices.