LIKE A FAMILY The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World By Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones and Christopher B. Daly University of North Carolina Press 468 pp. $34.95; paperback, $12.95

ONE OF the many people interviewed for this ambitious and useful book said, "You don't have to be famous for your life to be history," which is a pithy and precise summary of the "new" history as it is currently practiced. The assumption that the past can best be understood through "great" men and momentous events fell out of fashion years ago; history "from the bottom," emphasizing the daily lives of ordinary people, is all the rage now, especially among younger scholars who came to maturity during the 1960s and '70s. The authors of Like a Family are such people, and they have produced a book that is entirely true to their new genre: its principal sources are oral histories, private letters and journalistic accounts.

Its subject is the rise and fall of the southern mill town, principally in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Inasmuch as this is a tale thick with class conflict, economic exploitation and labor-management animosity, one might expect six young historians to approach it with all ideological guns blazing. But to the immense credit of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall et al., they have resisted the temptation; though their sympathies are clearly with the mill workers, at every turn they resist stereotypical views of labor and capital, and they decline to see any aspect of the great migration from farm to factory in black-and-white terms. The result is a work of scholarship that is both authoritative and most refreshingly undogmatic.

The story of the southern mill towns is familiar in its broad outline, but far less so in its intimate details. We know that in the late 19th century the textile industry began to emerge in the South, primarily because of the cheap labor available there; that the companies established mill towns in hopes of luring workers away from the farms and developing loyalty to their employers; and that the mill towns, after a period of something akin to prosperity, began to decline as union militancy and management obduracy intensified, and as the rise of the automobile created a more mobile, less malleable work force.

All of this is well known to students of the South specifically and the labor movement generally, but until now it has been seen more as an economic and social phenomenon than as a human one. Like a Family changes that. It gives us the voices of the men and women who came from the farms and the mountains to the new cities of the Piedmont, and whose collective presence was a powerful force in the shaping of the "new" South. Because the focus of the book is on the textile industry, most of the people who figure in it are white; discrimination against blacks in the textile mills was perfervid, and only the most menial jobs were available to them. But the poor whites whom the mills welcomed were themselves victims of bias and exploitation, so in no way can the authors of Like a Family be charged with slanting their history away from society's less fortunate members.

The portrait of these poor whites that the authors paint is far more complex and sympathetic than most previous ones. The old mythology -- one shaped largely by middle-class whites -- "emphasized poverty and suffering," and argued that the poor whites were stunted people to whom the mills offered escape from a desperate existence. Like a Family suggests quite to the contrary. The testimony of the people themselves provides powerful evidence that they came from a culture with strong roots in the soil, deep familial and communal loyalties, and "familiar values and habits" that they were determined to perpetuate in the strange new world of the mill towns.

These people had not dashed joyfully to the mills, as the prevailing mythology would have us believe, but had done so with great reluctance. Many of them well knew that the price they would pay for a regular paycheck was the loss of their independence; as one labor organizer put it, "When they enter the factories they are no longer free men and free women, but are considered part of the machinery which they operate." However meager their previous lives had been, they had been untrammeled by obligations or restraints imposed by others. In the mill villages the workers made a concerted effort to maintain as much of their old independence as possible; quite apart from their economic grievances against their employers, this doughty hostility to the depersonalizing effects of the mills seems to have been an important contributor to labor unrest.

Yet the paradoxes of human nature being such as they are, even as the mill workers sought to maintain their freedom, they retreated into the bosom of the mill town's extended family in order to find solace and dignity. "Again and again in our interviews," the authors write, "people chose a family metaphor to describe mill village life . . . . Family, as an image and as an institution, winds its way through this book, multilayered and deeply felt." Work in the mills was hard and dangerous, and life in the village was short on amenities, but community life provided its compensating satisfactions, and as it gradually diminished over the years many came to lament it. "People misses a lot by not having community," one woman said. "I believe it made you more secure or something. But now you're scattered. You work maybe one place, then work way over yonder, and you don't get close to nobody."

THE CLOSE WORLD of the mill villages ended because of the strikes, especially those of 1919 and 1934, and because the age of mass communications produced "community" of a different, more exotic sort; movies, radio and the car reached "the smallest Piedmont mill village and the deepest Appalachian hollow," and once that happened the villages were absorbed into the larger culture of the nation. But while they lasted they were livelier and more interesting places than has generally been realized, and they were part of a folk culture that has had a large and lasting influence on American life.

In Like a Family they receive ample but unsentimental tribute. The book was written by a committee and reads that way -- always competent but rarely inspired -- but that is of no moment. The book is thorough, meticulous and fair. Its authors are as evenhanded with the great textile industrialist J. Spencer Love as they are with the lowliest weaver and spinner; they write scornfully about "wage slavery" in the mills, but they also try to understand the economic forces with which the owners and managers of those mills had to contend. Their sympathies lie, as well they should, with the ordinary people whose labors made the mills run, but they have sufficient breadth of mind to understand that it takes all kinds to make a world, or a mill; as a result their story is populated not by heroes and villains, but by people. ::