Monday, January 01, 2007

Jane Smiley: Most Informative Book of 2006

Novelist and essayist Jane Smiley offers us Jane's Bingo! Award for Most Informative Book of 2006. The award goes to Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University Press, 1989. I have not read this volume, so must depend on various reviews and Jane Smiley's summation to get a glimpse of what this work is all about.

According to Fischer, American culture can be best understood if it is seen as being formed by four emigrations from four regions of Britain. Beginning in the early 17th century, the Puritans, mostly from East Anglia, settled in New England. Next came the southern English cavaliers and their servants to Virginia during the mid-17th century. Then, beginning about 1675, the Quakers began to settle in Pennsylvania. The final group were the Scots and Irish from the borderlands who settled in Appalachia in the early years of the 18th century.

Smiley expands on Fischer's original premise:

...Fischer's thesis, in Albion's Seed, is that the four major emigrations from England to the US came from four distinct regions and cultures in England, set sail at four different periods of English history, and settled in four different US regions. These cultures have remained more or less distinct; they have set up the structures of American political and cultural life; and they have often rendered Americans inexplicable and hostile to one another. What is most important, from my point of view, is that one of these cultures has taken over American life, denigrating and threatening all of the others, and that it was almost inevitable that it do so. Hackett wrote the book in the eighties, when the four cultures seemed to be in balance. My view is that now, fifteen years later, if we don't come to understand how these subcultures work in American life, we will be unable to regain the democracy we have often (but not always) had in the past...
This commentary is worth a read. It not only offers some real insight into our current political tensions, but I would suggest it also sheds some light on our Current Unpleasantness within the Episcopal Church. It is also helpful in identifying potential allies in the years ahead.

Smiley's article, and the glowing reviews that I've seen, have caused me to place Albion's Seed at the top of my "must read" list. I'd be interested in hearing from those who are familiar with this work, and also some feedback on Smiley's view that one of these cultures has taken over American life.

A tip of the biretta to Mike for pointing to this article.


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