Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kevin M. Schultz's "Tri-Faith America"

Kevin M. Schultz is Assistant Professor of History and Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, and reported the following:
I really enjoy my page 99. It is the first page of Chapter 4, which starts with a great story about one of our most accomplished sociologists, Herbert Gans, moving with his wife into Levittown, New Jersey, in order to research his classic book, The Levittowners, which is probably the best book there is on postwar suburbia. But when he moved in, he appeared as just another neighbor, happy to have those 900 square feet rather than a cramped city apartment.

Gans was very confessional in the book, talking about his experiences moving into what had been just months before a potato field. He was also game when I sent him emails in 2008 inquiring about his experiences. For all his fame, he seemed to be a really nice, serious guy.

My wife and kids always tell me that learning history is a lot more fun when it's told as a series of stories that illustrate a point, so the story of Herbert Gans and his wife going to all those public meetings, observing the growth of the synagogues and churches, visiting the T-ball fields, and generally participating in the life of the community leads into the basic point of the chapter, which is that the postwar suburbs were not at all bland places with white picket fences, but rather locations of public discourse, where new neighbors negotiated terrain that was far different from where they had lived before.

Indeed, what Gans discovered is that, while racial divisions were muted from public discourse (there were no black people in Levittown), divisions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews animated a world of discourse and forced a change in the norms that American lived by. The suburbs were not, in fact, a bland place where everyone melted together, but instead the location where Catholics and Jews demanded the right to be different, to be Catholic or Jewish without having to suffer any consequences.

On page 99, it's the story of Gans that helps me make that point.
Learn more about Tri-Faith America at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue