The Genuine Article

Autumn Woods, by Albert Bierstadt. 1886

 Reading a very interesting collection of essays, The Genuine Article, by Edmund S. Morgan. It’s an historical look at early American life, taken primarily from his articles for the New York Review of Books.

Lots of food for thought. He tells us (indirectly) that historians of that early period have spent most of their time with New England, not because of bias, but because of available records. We are blessed with a huge amount and variety of journals, letters, public records, and assorted written indications of life for the early settlers in the north, but very little for those in Virginia and south of that colony. There was also a difference in family life, ratio of male to female and life expectancy that favored New England. More families settled in the north initially. Virginia and other southern colonies seemed to get far more indentured servants, and then slaves, and far fewer intact families. This seems to have had an impact of written records from the point of view of the settlers themselves. The Civil War also played a destructive role in preservation. The records housed in Richmond, Virginia were mostly destroyed during the war.

Morgan also tries his hand at historical analysis of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials, and the movie made from that play in 1996. He’s highly impressed with both, though he tells us of the historical inaccuracies, but does so gently. It’s interesting to think of Miller’s play in the context of the Communist witch hunts of the time of his writing, and how it impacted his own battle with McCarthyism.

There is also discussion of gender roles in early America and a review of several books on the subject. Without having read the books under review, it’s hard to know if Morgan’s criticism is just or fair, but his points make sense. As when he questions whether it is accurate to paint New England with the brush of a thinker (Robert Filmer) whose major work (Patriarcha) was published in 1680, after the period in question. Or, that the author set up a fair dichotomy between north and south when it came to gender roles. Filmerian for New England, Lockean for Virginia and parts further south.

There is also some discussion of the relative merit involved in concentrating on “ordinary” people (in the southern colonies), their everyday lives, at the expense of big events. Morgan makes the logical criticism that it is one thing to bring those who have been neglected by previous historians into the forefront, and still another to make assumptions based upon very sketchy records. The case in point being Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) and its impact on ordinary folks in Middlesex County, Virginia. The authors under review opine that the rebellion was of very little consequence to average Virginians. Morgan counters with the fact that historians have little to go on in the way of actual, written records for that conclusion. He concedes it may be true. But because of scant evidence, it is conjecture, rather than factual deduction.

The writing is solid. Morgan gets in and out of his subjects quickly, directly. I’m looking forward to finishing it up and returning to it from time to time.


The Genuine Article
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