The Colonial Era To 1776
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
by John Barth (1960; Doubleday). Sometimes fiction conveys a truth to which academic scholarship does not (cannot?) aspire; take Sot-Weed , for example. Set first in post-Elizabethan England, then in early Maryland, this long novel offers up an edgy, earthy, altogether human portrayal. Its central character, one Ebenezer Cooke, is a brilliant composite of then-prevalent values, opinions, style, taste, and (most remarkably) diction. His Don Quixote-like exploits are realistic, outlandish, and, often enough, hugely funny. The result is time travel of the most absorbing kind; moreover, Barth’s imagined world fits neatly with all we have learned from the usual run of documentary “facts.”
by James Merrell (1989; Norton). Forty years ago Native Americans barely registered on any radar screen of colonial history. Now, thanks to a powerful new research enterprise—with the scholarly tag of “ethnohistory”—they have a central position. The Indians’ New World follows the Catawba people from their origins in the Carolina backcountry through their first dealings with white colonists, the resultant disease, a growing involvement in external trade, missionary contact, demographic and geographic reconfiguration, and, finally, the renewal of their tribal identity. At every point the book shows them not simply as victims but also as resourceful agents of their own destiny—a picture that applies broadly to other Indian groups as well.
by Kenneth Silverman (1984; Welcome Rain). Puritanism: We can’t avoid it, nor should we. And perhaps the best way to approach it is through its crankiest, most famous, most frequently stereotyped and caricatured American exemplar, the Boston minister Cotton Mather. Fortunately, Mather is the subject of the finest account of any individual life from early America. Read this book, and you know him. Moreover, the times no less than the life are fully presented here: society and economy, religion and science, the natural and the built environment, ideas, fashion, custom, and taste. Take it all together, and this is biography morphing into histoire totale .
by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum (1974; Harvard). Witchcraft is another subject impossible to avoid. Nothing else in the sprawling terrain of colonial history is quite so notorious, or so vulnerable to popular sensationalism. However, witchcraft has also attracted serious scholars, as a kind of prism for examining the inner-life dimension of early American (especially Puritan) experience. Witness the Boyer-Nissenbaum team’s remarkable Salem Possessed . Starting from a bit-by-bit dissection of the local community, the book moves outward and downward to uncover a host of hidden but fundamentally dynamic connections. Its endpoint—and the deepest, broadest connection of all—is an unexpected bridge between witch-hunting and early capitalism. Thus is Salem’s story rescued from the hands of antiquarians and hucksters and given lasting historical significance.
by Jonathan Fairbanks et al. (1982; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; out of print). Historical evidence comes to us in things no less than in words. And New England Begins was perhaps the supreme example of a historically informed—and informative—museum exhibition. Mounted some 20 years ago by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, it re-created a long-lost physical world—the look, the tone, the texture, the feel of it, and, by dint of careful interpretive effort, much of its meaning as well. The range of objects included was enormous, from high-style parlor chairs, needlework embroideries, and silver goblets to humble chamber pots, firedogs, clay pipes, and shovels. The show, like all shows, was evanescent; fortunately, however, it lives on in a handsomely produced catalogue three volumes long. Here one can find a full array of excellent images together with 10 essays reflecting the best of recent material culture study.
by Ira Berlin (1998; Belknap). Only within the past decade have historians come to appreciate the centrality of chattel slavery in early American life. Take out slavery, most now agree, and everything would look different: economic growth and development, most obviously, but also social structure, cultural forms, even individual psychology. As much as or more than any other group, African-American bondsmen (and women) built the foundations of our modern nation. This is the burden of Many Thousands Gone , a sweeping overview of its inevitably painful subject. But the book does more than establish the matter of sheer importance; it adds complexity and nuance by showing the many different forms slavery took, the concomitant growth of racist ideologies, and the never-ceasing struggle of the slaves themselves to resist, or at least to temper, the terms of their oppression.