It's an odd feeling to read a history of the main regional groupings of colonial America and see the place you grew up left out, particularly odd whenIt's an odd feeling to read a history of the main regional groupings of colonial America and see the place you grew up left out, particularly odd when that place is one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the US. "Where's New York? How does New York fit into this scheme?" I kept asking. The answer became clear in the conclusion. Fischer had left New York City out (upstate New York he sees as fitting in culturally with New England) because it was, during colonial times, basically a growth from New Amsterdam, a city more Dutch than English in culture. And this book is the story of England's contribution to American culture, and the ways in which the different regional cultures of the UK influenced the different regional cultures of the US. This isn't, I realized as I read the book, actually my usual mental focus, as a New York raised daughter of a Greek immigrant; I tend to think more often about the Ellis Island experience, for all that I learned in school about colonial days. But I did find that his account explained some things that had puzzled me.
The choice gives a particular slant to Fischer's history. He emphasizes the ways in which existing culture shapes the economic choices of a region over the ways in which the means of production shape culture (no Marxist analysis here, where everything else would be superstructure to the economic base). He emphasizes the regional cultures brought to the New World over the ways in which the New World shaped these cultures: the ways in which Southern culture was predisposed to choose slavery more than the ways in which slavery changed Southern cavalier culture, the ways in which the borderland peoples chose a particular adaption to the frontier more than the ways in which the frontier changed borderland peoples, the ways in which non-Anglo-Americans adapted to existing regional cultures (JFK and Dukakis becoming New England Yankees and Barry Goldwater a representative of the borderland/Scots-Irish culture) more than the ways in which immigrants shifted American culture. If the short history at the end of the book about how the four cultures have been reflected in the Presidency were carried forward till the present, Barack Obama might appear as a representative of the middle America background of his Kansas born mother.
So does the book, as one skeptical friend wondered, attempt one single explanation of American history? I would say not. Fischer acknowledges the things he's leaving out (though in one case, when discussing Reconstruction, I think he allows too little for how that history might have been altered if ex-slaves had actually gotten those 40 acres and a mule), even as he chooses not to dwell on them. He isn't, after all, saying that American history can be reduced to the history of those four regional British cultures. Rather, he is saying that these four regional British cultures have had, and still have, a strong influence on our country. And for that, he makes a good case.
The strength of the book is in the description of all four cultures, and the ways in which all four are tied back to regions in England (and Scotland and northern Ireland in the case of the border people), class relations and historical events at the time of immigration.
In his account, I see explanations for genealogical, cultural, and political things, such as:
1) Why does every single line on my grandfather's father's family tree seem to go back to some ship arriving in New England from England sometime in the 1630s? It turns out it's because that's simply what New England was like, before the Irish potato famine immigration. It's the earliest of his four waves of immigration (there were very early settlers in Virginia, but their big wave came a little later), and *everyone* showed up not long after 1630.
2) Cahn's and Carbone's red and blue families? These turn out to look very much like New England families vs. Scots-Irish families, if you simply add birth control to New England families and weaken the power of the shotgun marriage in Scots-Irish families. New England families, if Fischer's account is right, *always* married later and more educated, while Scots-Irish families married younger and more often following a pregnancy.
3) Fischer describes sharp differences in the Gini coefficient of different parts of the country leading to differences in what tax money went for. New England, which strove for equality both by bringing in mostly middle class immigrants rather than rich or poor ones and by evenly distributing land, wound up with taxes going mostly for shared public goods like schools, while the South, the land of second sons of aristocrats and poor indentured servants (until it became also the part of the country with slaves) had a much more uneven distribution of wealth and therefore a larger portion of tax money going to the very poor. As I read that, it made sense that New England would wind up more tax friendly.
The cultures that are most familiar to me (Quaker and New England cultures) seemed well described, and the Southern cultures were made more explicable. On the whole a good book....more
There's a certain Henry Kissinger meets Glenn Greenwald quality to Thucydides. On the one hand, he describes the motives of the various parties in theThere's a certain Henry Kissinger meets Glenn Greenwald quality to Thucydides. On the one hand, he describes the motives of the various parties in the Peloponnesian War with a shrewd realism that reminds me of Machiavelli's _The Prince_; on the other hand, I think that reference to Machiavelli might give you the wrong impression if you think by it that his writing is like what people generally mean when they use the adjective "Machiavellian," for Thucydides' political realism is complemented by a keen sense of the cost of war, and, hence, the cost of overreaching empire.
The story covers decades of the most grueling war of ancient Greece (the one that ended in the destruction of Athens' empire) in a wide ranging way. You get the calamity of the plague that hit Athens, Thucydides' admiration of Pericles and his cynicism about the demagogues that followed him, the political maneuvering within Athens and the military maneuvering of both sides, and the disastrous decision to attack Syracuse. Along the way, you get everything from ancient crowd sourcing (estimating the height of a wall, in a siege, by having many people count the bricks at once) to the politics of scandal (a dubious charge of sacrilege that gets Alcibiades banished, although the fact that he promptly switches to assisting Sparta doesn't exactly make leave you sympathetic to him in his banishment), to the dramatic incident of the two ships, one sent to announce Athens' decision that all the men in rebellious Mytilene shall be put to death, and the second, arriving just as soon as the first proclamation has been read, on a mission of mercy to announce that Athens has revoked the first sentence....more
A book with a Greek-American narrator who's just about exactly my age (and hence the same age as I was when things like the invasion of Cyprus happeneA book with a Greek-American narrator who's just about exactly my age (and hence the same age as I was when things like the invasion of Cyprus happened), this novel plays both with gender and with the different ways immigrants do and don't assimilate in interesting ways....more