New England and a Wider World: Notes on Some Central Themes of Modern Historiography

SCIENTISTS, it is said, learn in order to discover; humanists discover in order to learn. This suggests once again how anomalous a field of scholarship history is. For while discoveries in historical scholarship, as in science, create great personal satisfaction and bring substantial professional rewards, they can at best be only small adjustments in the immense and ever enlarging map of historical learning, the whole of which—the old information and the latest discoveries—must be absorbed anew by every historian. There are discoveries in these nine essays on seventeenth-century New England—a subject that every generation, apparently, is fated at first to believe is exhausted, only to discover that it is far from that, and to enrich it with yet another wave of fresh and innovative study. And they contribute incrementally to general shifts in perspective and understanding that are otherwise under way.

Karen Kupperman suggests, in her intriguing essay on the Puritans’ perceptions of climate, a new approach to understanding the sense of disillusion and confusion and the desire for renewal that overwhelmed the Puritan leadership at the end of the century. Joan Thirsk relates the agricultural practices of New England farmers to a distinctive wave of agricultural innovation in the economically troubled British provinces in the seventeenth century and suggests that it was the New Englanders who carried forward the English experiments that fell away in the home country in the more prosperous eighteenth century. Vickers identifies for the first time a socio-economic subculture of seventeenth-century New England whose origins can be traced back to the transient Basque, Norman, and West Country fishermen of the sixteenth century and whose absorption into the settled world of eighteenth-century New England can be traced in finely attentuated lines of the later century’s social history. Hall discovers a more ordinary mental world for the Puritans than that of formal theology and its ancillary social and political theories—a world of superstition, magic, strange providences, marvels, and the occult, a world not peculiar to them but shared, as Keith Thomas has shown so vividly, by the whole of the early modern world. And Miller discovers that the Puritans, too, resorted to graphic art to satisfy “an internal world of necessity.” They were eager to make use of the craft of portraiture, not only because it met political and social needs—celebrating the importance of the family, reinforcing the distinction of a ruling elite, and chastening human vanity by recalling the inevitability of death—but also and simply because it appealed to the universal delight in color and in visual form.

These are discoveries—and there are others, if less specific. Harris depicts, in the human geography of French Canada, the process by which a vernacular subculture emerged from the blending of major cultures in the peculiar environment of a remote province, and he suggests the way this kind of study may be used to understand a similar development in New England. And Allen, in contrast, identifies specific continuities between local cultures in Old England and New. But all of these discoveries are in a field of humanistic scholarship, and so their value, in the end, lies in their enrichment of a coherent and comprehensive understanding of the subject as a whole. Each paper stands alone but contributes to the general purpose of introducing a new phase in the ever-broadening and deepening study of New England’s, and ultimately America’s, origins. What general view do these essays together project, what new approach, or framework of understanding? Are there central themes that emerge from these diverse discoveries and explanations?

Two, it seems to me, are striking. The papers reveal, first, the degree to which latent circumstances, unknown and indeed largely unknowable by the people of the time, conditioned not only their physical and social lives but their mental worlds as well. Much of the struggle of the New Englanders’ world was an effort to deal not directly with the latent sources of their difficulties—for the colonists had no means of grasping them—but with their palpable manifestations. So the Puritans knew with an absolute certainty that climate was a function of global location and therefore that similar positions of latitude would have similar climates. When New England’s climate in the early seventeenth century failed to fit the expected picture, they could account for that by an ancillary belief, that human cultivation affected climate, and hence that in time, as cultivation expanded, climate would conform to expectation. When it did not, as the severity of the New England weather worsened at the end of the century, they were forced back to Providential—ultimately moral—explanations to fight off complete bewilderment and incomprehension and to bring the situation under intellectual control. There can be no finer, more succinct and vivid, example of the richness of explanation that emerges from the fusion of latent and manifest elements in complex historical situations. This fusion of the unknown and the known, the hidden and the visible, the buried circumstantial and the palpable evidential, is, I believe, one of the key developments in modern historical writing, and it produces, as in Kupperman’s essay, a significant sophistication of understanding.

And not only in Kupperman’s essay. Harris, too, focuses on a modern understanding of ecological phenomena not visible or graspable as such by people of the seventeenth century, and on the way they struggled to deal with these issues, not systematically but haltingly, pragmatically, partially, inconsistently. With their motivation pitched to what Harris nicely calls “a deductive overtone,” the New Englanders approached life far differently than did the Newfoundland fishermen, the Acadian dike-building maritime farmers, and the Canadian fur traders, but they faced willy-nilly parallel problems shaped by the environment, and so like the settlers to the north reached selectively back into their original culture. Functionless memories faded, “the collective European heritage thinned,” and a New England configuration emerged, emphasizing family, a craving for land, and above all the power of private property. At root was an altered physical environment, and above ad a different ratio of land and people. This last is nothing Harris observes for the first time, but he uses it afresh to explain what otherwise is vague and barely perceived: how the original pockets of local, homogeneous New World culture transferred from the old—precisely the elements depicted by Allen—led in time to an increasingly “thin,” blended, culture as settlement expanded westward, and to a simplification of cultural memories. And where settlement nodes exported but did not import people, the distinctive, inherited ways described by Allen could survive for generations while the leaner, disaggregated, more diffused culture, a “severe abstraction” from Europe, evolved out on the expanding borderland. All this was happening in the late seventeenth century, all this the scene of struggle, though no contemporary could have traced its roots to the processes of human geography and to an altered ratio of land and labor. It would have taken a mind of genius to have seen the cultural meaning of these latent ecological pressures—and in time, in the eighteenth century, one appeared. Dr. Johnson’s mode of discourse is altogether different from Professor Harris’s, but he saw it all with brilliant clarity when in 1773 he discovered with shock and dismay the depopulation of western Scotland by migration to North America. The thousands who leave for America, he wrote with an acute understanding of cultural power and diffusion, are lost to the nation, “for a nation scattered in the boundless regions of America resembles rays diverging from a focus. All the rays remain but the heat is gone. Their power consisted in their concentration: when they are dispersed, they have no effect.”

In other papers besides Kupperman’s and Harris’s, analysis of latent forces gives new meaning to the manifest struggles of seventeenth-century New Englanders. Something of the same is hinted at in Thirsk’s essay. New Englanders had no capacity to relate their innovations to short-lived agricultural experiments on marginal land in the English provinces. But the historian can make that connection and thereby enlarge the explanatory power of the account that can now be written. Similarly, too, the character of the fishermen’s lives in Essex County was a product of the seasonality of the swarming of the cod, and so too were the problems the fishermen’s unstable, impoverished, riotous, and individualized lives posed for the Puritan magistrates. And the substratum of belief in magic, sorcery, astrology, and other occult sciences in general lay like a hidden reef beneath the surface of the rational, articulated Protestant profession the Puritans formally acknowledged. Their inner lives were therefore strange mixtures of formal theology, of rationalized belief, of structured ritual and intellection on the one hand, and unacknowledged superstitions, irrational fears, and compulsions on the other. The reality of their subjective existences was thus a fusion of the two—neither the self-conscious apologetics of the “New England mind” nor the half-submerged magic and superstition of ancient folklore, but the fusion of the two in forms we only now begin to understand.

But there is an even broader consensus among these essays, a more widely shared approach, which, too, reflects the dominant currents of modern historiography. Though all of these papers deal with a restricted geographical region, none of them are simply exercises in local history. All of them draw their intellectual force from references to a wider world, and it is a world in respect to which New England civilization was an altogether marginal phenomenon. New England appears only at the very end of Harris’s and Thirsk’s papers: the substance of their discussion is French Canada and England, but developments in these larger worlds illuminate New England’s history. Reference to a general background of climatological belief is the essential starting point for Kupperman’s analysis. Allen’s expressed theme is the degree to which New England is a recreation of local English variations. Vickers implies a double relation of the local to the general: the relation of the New England fishing industry to Atlantic commerce as a whole, and of the Essex fishermen to the core culture of Puritan New England. And the others, too—Foster, Hall, St. George, and Miller—all find the springs of their explanations in the marginal relation of New England to a greater British world.

This common point of view is no accident. As I have elsewhere noted, the force of current scholarship seems to be leading increasingly to the enlargement of spheres of analysis and to the perception of filiations from central phenomena to their peripheral extensions. American developments in the seventeenth century, to say nothing of New England’s regional developments, took place on the far outer margins of the British-Atlantic world, and they gain their meaning from that fact. They were phenomena on the outer periphery—I use that word and not “frontier.” The word “frontier” does not appear in any of these essays. For “frontier” implies an advance toward a goal, a positive march forward, a leap ahead, as scientists advance by their discoveries toward new frontiers of knowledge and control. Hsitorians once saw the history of the New England settlements as a “frontier” phenomenon. Those who wrote in that tradition implied that everything that happened was a movement toward a goal—which, whether acknowledged or not, was an ultimate Americanization most fully realized in the self-sufficient frontiersman of the middle Western states. There is no such implication in the metaphor of “periphery.” The image is not that of a forward edge, leading outward toward a final goal, but of an outer edge, the radial margin kept firm, coherent, and operative by spokes connecting it to an inner hub. It denotes a distance from, not a movement toward; its implications are regressive not progressive. The metaphor implies, as Dr. Johnson knew, a thinning out, an attenuation, a weakening filiation leading away from the heartland, away from coherence and relevance, toward an unknown world whose ultimate meaning could not be clearly discerned.

In this sense New England lay not on the frontier but on the outer periphery. This, it seems to me, is the dominant theme of these fresh and suggestive essays. They reveal aspects of, they turn up corners of, an emerging culture on the far outer margin of Britain’s metropolitan civilization. They face inward, to the east, not outward, to the west. They are nostalgic, backward looking—and correctly so. For, consciously or unconsciously, that was the stance the people of the time took to the greater world. These are contextualist essays, in their approach the very opposite of that optimistic whiggism that refers events to eventualities and that therefore can never contain surprises. They are efforts to comprehend segments of the past within their own sockets of time and place, and those locations lie at the boundaries of a greater world. It is the substantial merit of these papers that they probe the contexts of the past, and that they depict the struggles of a peripheral society to master problems whose sources lie hidden from view.

© Bernard Bailyn, 1984.

Bernard Bailyn is Adams University Professor of History, Harvard University.