The introduction describes the genesis of the book, establishes the historical questions it addresses, points to the answers to come, and situates this work in the historiography of Central and Eastern Europe. Most importantly, it makes the case for collective biography, which is the most innovative feature of this book. The introduction also defines the main features of northeastern Hungary and stresses what is gained by viewing nineteenth-century history from the vantage point of this poor, remote region. Drawing on Benedict Anderson and Edward Said, it closes with reflections on the "imagined geography" as an analytical framework that captures the mixture of acute observations and bold visions of change offered by the eight men and women examined here.
The subject of the first chapter is Count József Gvadányi, an aristocrat of Italian origins who spent forty years as a cavalry officer before becoming a prolific author in his sixties. Largely forgotten today, Gvadányi was one of the most popular authors of the 1790s. He churned out biographies, military studies, and long, narrative poems. An analysis of the poetry reveals Gvadányi to be a careful observer of northeastern Hungary. The count was supportive of upward mobility through education and largely sympathetic to the diverse peoples who lived in the region (although Jews have no place in his literary landscapes). In this way, Gvadányi's writings begin to construct the "myth of the provinces": namely, the belief that Hungary had great untapped economic potential and that its different peoples lived in relative harmony. Later chapters take apart and add to this myth.
The second chapter drops from the top of the social pyramid to near the bottom, to a Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant from Poland. Ráfáel Kästenbaum came to Hungary as a young man and worked as a merchant and moneylender in northeastern Hungary. Kästenbaum left behind few biographical documents. But when he died, his will showed him to be much wealthier and much more generous than anyone had suspected. A reconstruction of Kästenbaum's life shows the precarious position of Jews in provincial Hungary, just as his will's surprising bequests reveal the era's faith in education and the importance of local political coalitions (in this case the county nobility and Jewish elites) to achieve change.
Hopes for the dramatic economic transformation of provincial Hungary defined the life of Pál Vásárhelyi. Born into a poor noble family, Vásárhelyi became a water engineer, an occupation with great responsibility but limited social status and low pay. In this capacity Vásárhelyi spent long years on the Danube and Tisza Rivers. His writings encompass technical reports, pamphlets on water measurement, newspaper articles, and published speeches. In unguarded moments, Vásárhelyi let his imagination fly and dreamed of using river regulation to solve the economic, transportation, and social problems that beset the provinces. Vásárhelyi's plans were not fully realized, but they sketch a very different "imagined geography" of Hungary, which centered on the northeastern counties rather than on Budapest.
Economic issues give way to national questions with Klára Lövei, whose noble family had also fallen on hard times. As a woman, she had fewer options than Vásárhelyi. Undaunted, Lövei explored nearly all the career paths open to women of her era (actress, governess, teacher) before becoming in turn a revolutionary, political prisoner, and journalist. Letters, memoirs, and newspaper articles document her remarkable career. These sources can help us understand the roles played by women in provincial society and the importance of education as a means of individual and collective change. Finally, Lövei's pronounced Hungarian national loyalty illuminates what nationalism meant in an ethnically mixed border region.
This chapter also looks at nationalism, but this time from a Romanian point of view. Iosif Vulcan was descended from one of the most prestigious Romanian families in Austria-Hungary. He wrote plays, novels, and poetry; he championed Romanian-language theater; and he edited the journal The Family for nearly forty years. Scholars often view him as a Romanian national activist; this chapter asks what is gained if we see him as a provincial one. An examination of Vulcan's career shows the development of the public sphere (newspapers, books, associations) in the provinces. It also expands the argument (begun in previous chapters) about how nationalism worked on the ground in ethnically and religiously diverse regions.
What role did religion play in public life? What about antisemitism? How did Jews respond to pressures to adopt the language and customs of the majority Christian society? Answers to these questions emerge from the life of Rabbi Ármin Schnitzer, who grew up in northeastern Hungary but later settled in a small town in western Hungary. Schnitzer published a memoir, as well as speeches, sermons, and newspaper articles. In them we can see how Schnitzer tried to define a Jewish identity that fused Hungarian patriotism, imperial loyalty, and a measure of Zionism. They also show how Schnitzer used the local press, the town council, and networks of friends to respond to statewide crises, including the Tiszaeszlár ritual murder case in the 1880s and the battle over civil marriage in the 1890s. From this perspective, local political institutions appear much more vibrant and viable than is often assumed.
This chapter moves into the Hungarian countryside and looks at agriculture, the engine of the economy, albeit one that sometimes raced and sometimes sputtered and stalled. It focuses on Vilmos Daróczi, a Jew who grew up in a small village and eventually made his way to Budapest. Daróczi worked as a tobacco grower, tobacco buyer, and for the last quarter-century of his life, editor of a newspaper devoted to tobacco cultivation. The northeastern counties figured prominently in Dároczi's thinking, as he dreamed of remaking the rural society from which he had emerged. Daróczi's work can help us think about Hungary's place in the global economy, about economic forces remaking the countryside, and about the connections between patriotism and consumption.
Margit Kaffka grew up just a dozen miles from where Daróczi was born. Yet she did not share his optimism about the countryside. The daughter of yet another poor Hungarian nobleman, Kaffka eked out a living as a teacher and writer, first in a small town and then in Budapest. From there she looked back in anger on the Hungarian provinces. Her great novel Colors and Years (1912) examined the disintegration of the provincial nobility and documented its effects on women. To Kaffka, the provinces' social order was feudal, its Hungarian nationalism hollow, and its local politics corrupt. And yet, her work does offer a path forward that led through – rather than away from – the provinces. In this way, Kaffka retained something of the "myth of the provinces," even as she insightfully diagnosed its woes.
The conclusion highlights the common themes that join the lives of these men and women: their mobility, education, political engagement, professional achievements, social networks, and local loyalties. It documents how differently these men and women have been remembered, from the house museum of "the journalist" to the vanished grave of "the merchant." Most importantly, the conclusion answers the questions laid out in the introduction and pursued in the eight body chapters, emphasizing the innovative responses of some men and women to larger historical changes, the complex role played by ideologies in the countryside, and the shifting relationship between center and periphery. It closes with a brief reflection on what is gained by looking at history through a collective biography.