Nota Bene

-By Nina C. Ayoub
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Joseph A. Amato has a passion for the local, and he hopes it proves contagious. His gentle manifesto, Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History (University of California Press) rolls in from the prairies, using a fine-tuned sense of place to make a far-reaching argument.

The book reflects the scholar's own path to becoming a professor of rural and regional studies at Southwest State University. Three decades ago, Mr. Amato arrived in southwestern Minnesota with a specialty in European culture and intellectual history and the intent to stay just a few years. He says he never imagined becoming rooted, nor penning the local past. But he stayed, and eventually found himself writing the region in sagas of a double murder, an agricultural hoax, rural decline, and immigration, past and present. In the new book, southwestern Minnesota is the backdrop for musings on ways to write histories of home that avoid static, sentimentalized portraits. To write local history, he says, is to "learn a place in detail while understanding it as part of an unprecedented mutation, transformation, and metamorphosis."

The author's take on rural change begins with environmental and social history but soon roams over more elusive landscapes. Exploring the sensory, he reimagines his region in sound, describing a changing aural tapestry of noises from nature, farming, and small-town life since the 19th century. Later, his regional histories of anger and madness map the pastoral noir in a state known for niceness. A self-described collector of dark tales, he urges local historians to plumb the clandestine for the "invisible city, threatening and submerged, in every town."

Ayoub, Nina C., "Nota Bene," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 10, 2002, A23




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Last updated: March 21, 2006