Albion's Seed: A Capsule Review

David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed:Four British Folkways in America is quite the tome. In it, Fischer uses historiographic techniques to (ultimately) reflect on the question: What are the determinants of a free society? Clocking in at 972 pages, it can take a while even for the dedicated reader. For the distracted reader, it takes on almost epic dimensions. I found that the best strategy for me (the distracted reader) was to treat the main sections as separate books.

In turn, Fischer considers four great migrations from Britain to the US: the Puritan migration from the East of England to New England (mainly 1630-1640), the migration of fancypants from the South of England to Virginia (~1640-1670), the Quakers coming from the North Midlands of England to the Deleware River Valley (~1680-1730), and the migration of the riff-raff to the Appalachian back country (~1720-1780). He examines a variety of aspects of life, including religion, magic, work, age, architecture, sport, conceptions of liberty, marriage and sex, language and literacy, and child rearing (among a few others). Each of the great migrations is examined at length, so as you read each section, you get quite a portrait of the people and times.

In the concluding materials of the book, Fischer synthesizes the whole into a view that is fairly commonplace (though I don't know how much it was so during the peak of his work and work-life): regionalism in the United States is extremely alive and well, and has been with the exception of very brief interludes in our history. Still, it was absolutely worth reading, if only for the diary excerpts and the interesting discussion of characteristic architecture of the migrants in their new homelands (turns out it was a lot like the architecture of wherever they came from). I'll recreate from memory one example of the great diary excerpts...

A certain Southern Gentleman and his wife had an extremely contentious marriage. They fought all the time, didn't seem to like each other very much at all. One day, some hours after a loud spat, the Colonel asked his wife along for a carriage ride. They went, and after some time, he turned off the road and drove straight into the Chesapeake. Asked by the wife where he was headed, he replied "to Hell, Madam." The horses began to swim, and she said "Carry on. Anyplace is better than Arlington."

Now, this is funny but sad, of course. They really didn't make each other happy--when he died, he had left direction that his unhappiness in marriage was to be commemorated on his grave-marker. This was to read something like "Colonel John Custis, died at 71 years, but alive only 7, when he kept a bachelor's apartment". Talk about acrimony!

Also amusing was the discussion of place names in Appalachia. I won't reproduce it, but they were... earthy.


MC Squared said...

I'm trying to think of some stupid question I can ask about your use of italics for this post.

Nope. Don't have anything.

Carriage rides are all romantic and sweet until someone drives into the Chesapeake.

susan said...

It's all fun and games until someone drowns in the bay?

susan said...

And let's just say that the place names were not on the order of Terra Terrace or Loamy Lane.