The same year that the mixed blessing of the telephone reached Milwaukee, the city decided to encourage reading. The taxpayers took over the Young Men's Association library and in 1890 the aldermen decided to spend $630,000 for what became the largest Milwaukee duplex ever built. This was a building completed in 1898 to house the main library in one wing and a natural history museum in the other. Combining these two somewhat unlikely neighbors under one roof was done to save money and no doubt did, but it sometimes caused problems. Among their other functions, libraries are designed by nature to serve as a haven for respectable but broke gentlemen who have had a little too much to drink, but not so much to drink that they are apt to start throwing encyclopedias or trying to organize a quartette to sing sentimental ballads. During the years when Milwaukee's main library and its museum shared the stone duplex on the avenue, a number of these customers zigged when they should have zagged and instead of winding up in a comfortable chair in a reading room discovered themselves lost among displays of dead bison, dinosaur bones, stuffed birds, and other artifacts no drunk should be forced to look upon until he's sober. There are no statistics available on what percentage of these lost Milwaukeeans survived to reach the library. Perhaps all of them did, sooner or later, although the mummy displayed in the Egyptian exhibit looked much like a fellow who used to sit on the third stool from the end in Stash and Irma's Tap until he disappeared one wintry afternoon and was never seen again.Whenever I get sick of reading academic history—and this is often—I turn to other types of historical writing. As a snob, though, I have to tread carefully: anything published by a trade press in the last twenty years or so is automatically suspect, as is anything advertised by the History Book Club. I end up with a dwindling stock of random pop-historical works which were probably rejected by similar snobs in their day: Barbara Tuchman, Richard Sennett, Lynn Montross (who is obscure, but whose War Through the Ages drew me, as a child, into a historical career).
- Robert Wells, This Is Milwaukee (1970)
Even with this formidable set of prejudices, I have no idea what to make of Wells's book. It's a popular history, sure, but it's a remarkably detailed one. There are, moreover, few legitimate histories to counterpose it to: before the publication of John Gurda's The Making of Milwaukee in 1999, Milwaukee history was either fragmentary or problematic. In other words, as a complete history of the city from its founding to the date of publication, This Is Milwaukee could well have vied for the dubious prestige of being the city's definitive academic history. Its refusal was clearly deliberate. The whole book is written in this comic style, and with much greater success than such attempts tend to have. I haven't laughed out loud so much in a long time. (Well, Eric Widmer's history of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Beijing, which I mentioned a month or so ago, is also a good contender.)
What allows Wells's book to be so funny is its wink-nudge attitude to its reader. Wells expects him (definitely him) to be familiar with the geography of Milwaukee, to share the same devotion to drinking, Gemuetlichkeit, and mild anti-Chicago xenophobia, to identify with its German-Polish immigrant heritage and Socialist municipal politics. I know very few people in Milwaukee who would even recognize these as the constituent elements of some sort of coherent "Milwaukee identity," much less embrace them uncritically. To really get Wells's humor, therefore, the reader needs to play a kind of dress-up. He needs to pretend that these values are his own and, to some extent, become emotionally invested in their survival throughout Milwaukee's history (which, if the book has a real narrative at all, is its central axis).
It's clear that this cannot move very far beyond dress-up, for reasons that are actually pretty profound. The clear and distinct regional identities that American cities used to have are rapidly eroding under the pressure of such phenomena as creative-class gentrification and the abandonment of cradle-to-grave corporate employment. It is difficult today to appreciate the extent to which urban identities like Wells's were once widely shared and grounded in stable social structures and reliable processes of integration. (Both Good Will Hunting and The Town are really paeans to the loss of this identity in Boston.) Only New York (and perhaps Los Angeles and Las Vegas) has retained something of this stability, but this is really the exception that proves the rule: "Being a New Yorker" is today more like a collective hallucination of common ground than anything else.
Of course, not only cities but states and nations have undergone similar changes, if to a lesser extent (and this is visible in Europe much more than in the US). The nationalist historiography of Stephen Ambrose, who is already something of an epigone of nineteenth-century historians like Francis Parkman, is read mainly by retirees; younger people either prefer Howard Zinn or Jared Diamond or have no interest in history at all. I'm not complaining: I don't think we're any better or worse off for the lack of concrete national historical narratives, but they are something we have to recognize is missing. (Not to single out the Republicans, but nineteenth-century American nationalists would be revolted at the lack of elementary factual knowledge of the American Revolution and the Early Republic era displayed by right-wing talking heads.)
Much as I would like to conclude this post with a rousing call to write more Wells-style history, I can't do it. You can already see the spirit of consensus and shared values breaking down when Wells discusses the Milwaukee race riots of the late 1960s. He endorses the police crackdown on them, and, characteristically, ventriloquizes the average Milwaukeean, who of course agrees with him too. But it's an uneasy sort of agreement. Wells clearly cannot quite bring himself to think that cops and National Guardsmen kettling black rioters is quite the same thing as the good old night watchman bopping red-haired heads in the Bloody Third Ward. The Milwaukee that he so unqualifiedly offers the reader is one that is already in the process of disappearing.