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The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America

The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America - Ed White White teaches English at the Univ. of Florida. His title recalls Raymond Williams, which White says he turned to in the early stages of thinking about this project. The central question of this book is, “What was the role of an urban public sphere in a largely rural society?” (xi) More generally, White asks, “what did it mean to focus on urban literate culture,” when explaining social movements in a largely rural society? (xii) The question is actually more compelling for American history, White suggests, than Williams’ made it for British. While English literary traditions reflected an ancient agrarian heritage, “for early America...the literary production, from the sermons and tracts all the way to the earliest newspapers and novels, is predominantly urban.” The literary element of this question, ironically, is what interests me, because the history is outside my (current, orals-induced) range of interest. It allows White to “rethink conventional periodization,” and ask “From a backcountry perspective, what had actually changed with the American Revolution?” (xii) I’m not sure it’s relevant for me at this point that White’s ideas regarding “structural analysis from below” come from Gramsci’s prison notebooks; but I loved his succinct summary of social history as “statistics, averages, and representatives.” (xiv, xv) “Getting out of the city and into the country,” White says, “requires more than simply hitting the road, particularly if the roads are laid out by the urban planners.” (1) Urban writers, even contemporary ones who are demonstrably sympathetic, have been too quickly accepted as spokesmen for the rural. “Set against the well-documented and articulate culture of the urban seaports,” White says, the early American “backcountry lolls like a massive negation, a cultural nonbeing.” (2) While this probably overstates the silence of rural people in the archives, it calls attention to a perception shared by many historians. It’s easier to ruralize urban writers, “as in Vernon Parrington’s insistence upon Ben Franklin’s commitment to ‘agrarian democracy,’” than it is to find the letters, diaries, or local newspaper editorials of actual agrarian democrats. (3)The most interesting part of White’s argument, for my present purposes, is his discussion of the “republican synthesis” of Bailyn, Wood, and Pocock. White says their “insistence upon a cohesive, unified, republican discourse...hinged on the synthesizers’ [both the republicans’ and the historians’] own distinction between random ideas and ideological systems.” (6, 7) And the synthesis focused attention on the [republican] synthesizers rather than on the ideas they massaged into an ideological system. White contrasts this with the stress he says Progressive historians and their heirs placed on both “horizontal social division between classes and competing groups, and a vertical, discursive division between public expression and private intention.” (6) Historians’ “refusal to reduce revolutionary language to some hidden subtext,” White implies, can lead them not only to the unrealistic claim that there was a single, monolithic, republican ideology, but it also focuses on the product and hides the process that created it. (7) The ongoing, often contested nature of that process, White says, can be seen in the verbs (“formulate...articulate...mobilize...systematize”) used to describe the founders’ activities. (8) The question that remains is, how much of the republican “achievement” was based on the founders’ success in improving on “diffuse and rudimentary lines of thought,” and how much did it involve marshaling and redeploying well-defined ideas in order to “retard the thrust of the Revolution with the rhetoric of the Revolution”? (quoting Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 9) “The synthesis,” White concludes, “is an idealized federalism, and like the federalists the synthesizers...betray a deep theoretical hostility for that which cannot be easily synthesized...[and] realize that an important part of the battle for order is simply to keep insisting that order exists.” (10) Setting aside the historiographical name-calling, it’s easy to see how a set of ideas or especially actions that were not “easily synthesized,” could fall out of the story and be forgotten. White believes the ongoing series of peripheral battles (Indian Wars, regulations, rebellions, and especially Paxton’s Riot) are evidence of an ongoing social contest between urban elites and a variety of others whose contribution to America’s republican achievement has been forgotten. White proposes to find evidence of the less-well-documented concerns of rural people, women, natives and others in “the vernacular terminology of practical ensembles.” (17) “Yeoman petitions,” he says, “are not simply expressions of a dominant republicanism...they instead mark a particular meeting of dispersed farmers trying to organize themselves in relation to an administrative body and a perceived threat.” (17-18) “Practical ensembles,” White says, “were the localities within which these battles were waged.” (18) While this may seem like another case of literary critics coming a generation late to the new social history party (White mentions this phenomenon, but I failed to note the page), White shows that something like this was going on in J. Franklin Jameson’s 1925 The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement. So it’s not an idea that historians have been universally successful at keeping in mind, and maybe a view from outside is useful now and then. The story White goes on to tell is less useful to me at present, because it falls well before the period I’m studying. His final discussion of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and republican rhetoric, is challenging. The revolts, rebellions, and regulations are interesting, and would be even more so with more people in them. I like the idea that something is going on outside the cities; that there’s an ongoing debate about the new society being formed; and that even if literate elites aren’t using republican rhetoric to cynically rationalize their own agendas, there’s a space between intention and rhetorical action where something is happening. Of course, this same space exists between intention and physical action; and it should be taken into account when we’re looking at all these “practical ensembles” and what they did.