Review Analysis for Mary Ryan’s Cradle of the Middle Class
Mary Ryan’s Cradle of the Middle Class (Amazon) shows the familial metamorphosis that occurred in Oneida County as growth and industrialization affected the area and cultural emphasis in the region began to transfer to Utica. In the seven articles observed, Mary Ryan’s book was generally well reviewed. Several authors, however, expressed certain reservations, which will be discussed shortly.
Regarding general comments about the book, Catherine Hall, who has proved to be the most unquestioning admirer, stated that Ryan’s most important contribution to the field was that “She has taken feminist perspectives firmly back into the study of the whole society…. It is not ‘just about women.” Nancy Hardesty states that Cradle of the Middle Class should be applauded for its “careful and thorough scholarship” and that it points the way to further study. Of further interest is that Hardesty associates Ryan’s work with the caliber of work seen in Paul Johnson’s A Shopkeeper’s Millennium. Barbara Epstein (with whose work The Politics of Domesticity Nancy Hardesty compares Cradle of the Middle Class) claims that Ryan has made a “major contribution to family history and to nineteenth-century American social history” and also “helps us to understand the intensity and the peculiarly domestic quality of early-nineteenth century revival and reform movements.” Kephart suggest this “most rewarding” work will become “part of the standard literature on American family history.” He does advise that the book is not, and was not intended to be, for the general reader. Bernard Farber notes that the book is of “overall exemplary quality,” though he later qualifies this with two exceptions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is Gross’s review which states, “Ryan’s book is badly written and carelessly reasoned, so caught up in the domestic drama of the middle class that it never reflects on its basic premises at all.”
The most commented upon element of Cradle of the Middle Class was the number, type, and use of sources by the author. Stuart Blumin appreciated Ryan’s “wide variety of sources” and was most impressed that she used them “best of all, without boasting about it.” Kephart lists in even greater detail the types of sources used by Ryan, which he sees as a “most impressive” amassing of a “wealth of information.” Epstein describes it simply as “richly documented.”
Gross lists that Ryan used diaries, novels, letters, directories, church records, censuses and other similar sources but remarks, “Unfortunately, all of this painstaking research does not pay off. Ryan’s substantive conclusions are unconvincing.” Farber points out to the reader that Ryan has created some “difficulties for the reader” as some of her percentages fall far short of adding up to one hundred and also fail to note sample size. He also suggests that some of the data requires more analysis than Ryan gives it. On the other hand, Hall believes that Ryan has “conquered the numeracy problems which give trouble to so many women because of our lack of statistical and mathematical training and is extremely successful in welding her quantitative data with her qualitative…She makes us realize how invaluable such information can be.”
The following section will allow for further praises and criticisms of the reviewers, though not all of the comments will be connected thematically. Farber seems pleased that Cradle of the Middle Class “compensates for a tendency to overlook the role of family in the growth of the American middle class.” He was disappointed that Ryan’s picture of family transformation left the reader without a clear indication of the influence of “foreign-born, lower-socioeconomic groups, or even native-born immigrants to Utica.” Another problem asserted by Gross is that Ryan “consistently chooses to infer the meaning of movements from the social characteristics of participants, rather than to study their rhetoric and activities in depth” and “Most disturbing of all, Ryan has no satisfying explanation for why the middle class developed the ideology of domesticity and the family forms that it did.”
Hall praises Ryan for unpacking “the ‘and’ between femininity and capitalism” as well as for an argument that “is underpinned by theoretical questions central to feminists and stands as one of the best examples we have of the actual workings of what she calls the ‘dialectic of class and family history.’” Blumin compliments Ryan’s work in bringing to the light the women’s organizations which “grew out of and helped organize the revivals of the Second Great Awakening – another area in which Ryan contributes new insights.” He does assert however that she does seem somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of the formation of the “American middle class” and “occasionally qualifies it, mainly by suggesting that it may apply more forcefully to a slightly later era.”
For the most part, Cradle of the Middle Class received reviews that appreciated Ryan’s contribution to her field. As with any book there were some problems, but most reviewers agreed that these did not deter greatly from the overall quality of the work. Ryan’s work is altogether insightful and inspiring. And as Blumin closes his review so will I close mine: “It should influence the way many of us go about our work.”
Blumin, Stuart. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 13 (Autumn 1982): 366-367.
Epstein, Barbara. The Journal of American History 68 (may 1982): 927-928.
Farber, Bernard. Contemporary Sociology 11 (July 1982): 430-431.
Gross, Robert. The American Historical Review 88 (June 1983): 752-753.
Hall, Catherine. Feminist Review 10 (Spring 1982): 104-107.
Hardesty, Nancy. Church History 52 (September 1983): 386.
Kephart, William. Journal of Marriage and the Family 44 (May 1982): 502-503.
 Catherine Hall, Feminist Review, 107; Nancy Hardesty, Church History, 386; Barbara Epstein, The Journal of American History, 928; William Kephart, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 503; Bernard Farber, Contemporary Sociology, 431; Robert Gross, The American Historical Review, 753.
 Stuart Blumin, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 367; Kephart, 503; Epstein, 927.
 Gross, 753; Farber, 431; Hall, 105.
 Farber, 430-431; Gross, 753.
 Hall, 104; Blumin, 366-367.
 Blumin, 367.