The State of American History

By Herbert J. Bass | Go to book overview

An Agenda for Urban History

RICHARD C. WADE

Historians have arrived at the study of the city by slow freight. Almost every other discipline very quickly saw something of great significance in the rise of the modern metropolis. American sociologists took the lead in probing the nature of the new city, and the "Chicago School" provided a framework and emphasis which continues to dominate urban analysis. To be sure, scholars in most fields were not very happy about the consequences of the rise of the city, and they generally emphasized the "problems" urbanization occasioned. Some, especially economists and geographers, dealt with its possibilities, yet the view from the academy was essentially pejorative, and the response by historians was largely indifference.

Nor was this neglect characteristic only of American historians. H. J. Dyos, for example, raised the same question about British scholars. "Why has it taken so long for such a heavily urbanised country as Britain to develop such a marked interest in the history of its cities and towns?" he asked at a recent conference on urban history.1 Attention on the continent, Dyos noted, has also been slight. In France, "urban history has remained in its chrysalis...for a half century or more." In Germany, "the activity going on also seems to have been generated comparatively recently." The record is scarcely any better in Australasia, where the primacy of cities has been the central fact of historical experience since the first English settlement.

This neglect in the United States has not always been so obvious. Many nineteenth-century historians had seen the importance of cities.

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