Sunday, March 29, 2015

Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer

One of the minor consolations of being sick is, once you have a little energy again, you have the time to catch up on reading.

Everybody seems to be saying of Albion's Seed: "You have to read this book." They're right.

He does a parallel analysis of 4 "folkways" in the US, explaining where they come from and how they changed from their origins (which he roughly traces--all were blends but with a dominant feature and region). These are the New England Puritan, Virginia Cavalier, Delaware Quaker, and "back country" Scots-Irish. I get the distinct impression that Fischer intensely disliked the Virginia environment--I would have probably hated it too.(*) The groups have, on balance, certain distinctive traits that still emerge in political and social conflicts in the country.

There was lots of history I wasn't aware of, and origins of ideas and words, and some corrections to things I'd been taught over the years. The American Revolution had arisen from a background of greatly increased royal meddling, for example. Histories that made it sound like a simple anti-"help pay for your defence"-tax are way too simple. From Quakers arguing over what to do about a river pirate to the backwoods pankration--lots of interesting background. I'll not hear the phrase "rough and ready" in quite the same way again.

The cultural distinctions survive into modern politics, and he tries to show how events and parties were driven by conflict and cooperation between the groups. I wonder what the cultural background of the Tea Party (our most recent populist social justice movement) has been. I know the usual suspects automatically despised it, which suggests the presence of one of the old tribal/cultural divisions Fischer wrote about.

When this was written in 1989 Fischer promised an upcoming book American Plantation to show how the Virginia culture demanded slavery; unfortunately that seems not to have materialized.

Yes, read it.

(*) I think, though my background is predominantly Scots-Irish, that on the whole I'd have preferred New England. They'd probably not have liked me much, though. The Virginia culture required too much kow-towing to rank and was rank with slavery (and malaria), the Delaware religion wasn't that congenial, they weren't that keen on higher learning, and at the time there was still slavery, and the back-country was way too violent for my liking (and with little respect for study). The Puritans were pretty restrictive, but mostly about things that don't skin my nose (unlike their descendants, who are just as far-reaching in their drive for control).


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Recommended to me by a friend who was a photovoltaic entrepreneur in USVI, investment counselor for EF Hutton, WWII strategy game designer, banker, and professor of history and business management at a small college in Maine.

I have never looked at colonial history in the same way since. It was pivotal in my understanding of American culture.

Donna B. said...

I bought it because AVI mentioned it. And I have bought it twice again because the people I loan it too apparently like it as much as I did.