Mud, Blood, and Ghosts: Populism, Eugenics, and Spiritualism in the American West

Univ. of Nebraska. May 2023. 356p. ISBN 9781496235060. pap. $30. HIST
Carr (English, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder; Real Life: An Installation) examines the roots of U.S. populism through the lens of her family history and the forces of home- and land-ownership, racism, and eugenics. In this deeply researched and compelling narrative, the author shares the travails of her ancestors as they moved west as homesteaders, gained and lost land and homes, became involved in politics, and influenced the development of movements such as eugenics and attempts to create white racial purity. Accessing archives, including Carr’s great-grandfather’s meticulously kept journals, the book pieces together the story of her family and ties it to the current growth in populism in today’s politics. (Carr’s great-grandfather was Omer Madison Kem, a member of the Populist Party who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1891, where he promoted nativism as well as leftist economic policies.) Carr interweaves her own emotional responses to the sometimes shocking facts she was learning about her own family, which brings a personal touch to the story, and thoroughly documents her sources in the notes and references section. This book makes clear how high the stakes are, showing that support for eugenics in the United States led to the Nazi adoption of the theory with such devastating results. It also asks how we should view the Populist Party’s hope of creating a just economy, even as they aimed to exclude certain people from their ideal society.
VERDICT This is an important and moving analysis of the development of a formal Populism movement in the United States, also important for understanding lowercase-p populism in today’s politics.
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