Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 14, 2017

Three books to understand the “Dark Matter” of American History

Grand theories of history often have less utility than the claims they make for themselves. Marxism is a classic example.

But that does not mean that theories of history are useless. And arguably, Marxism is a classic example in this case too. Material forces and class conflicts can’t explain all of history, but they do explain some of history. Chris Wickham’s magisterial Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 suffers from its excessive materialist and economistic thesis, but it also benefits from this perspective, because it captures part of the answer.

Moderation in all things, and due consideration to the importance of viewpoints in coloring perceptions, are the keys to comprehension in my opinion..

Today in some quarters it is fashionable to reduce all of history to the interplay between white supremacy and nonwhite peoples, who are depicted implicitly as nearly supine “noble savages,” existing in an Edenic state of nature before the intrusion of European peoples. This is a silly viewpoint from a scholarly perspective, and some of the ideological implications are ones which I object to most strongly.

And yet that begs the question, how does one understand the forces of history? In the American context, I think it is critical to understand the elementary regional folkways which congealed into these United States, and whose “cultural DNA” echoes down through the generations. Much of this is implicit and invisible culture because it is the culture of white English -speaking peoples of British provenance (though not all were Anglo, such as the French Canadians or Hispanos of the southwest).

Recently, Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is the best example of this sort of work, which attempts to trace the historical dark matter the skeleton beneath the flesh. A more scholarly and narrow treatment can be found in David Hackett Fisher’s expansive Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Finally, perhaps the most underrated and overlooked offering in this genre is Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America.

While Woodward focuses on all of North America, and Fisher more narrowly on the four folkways which extend from New England to the Deep South, Phillips’ integrates an American history with a broader narrative that shows the connections to events and processes occurring in the British Isles, and in particular England. The peculiarities of New England culture and economics, and their love-hate relationship to the British elites of the late 18th and 19th century, are critical pieces of the puzzle in explaining how the United States diverged from the United Kingdom, and, how the United Kingdom diverged from the United States.

If an understanding of population genetics allows one to decompose evolution and broadly biological phenomena into tractable analytic units, so an understanding of the elementary units of American culture, and their historical antecedents, shines a whole new light upon contemporary developments.

Three books to understand the “Dark Matter” of American History

Grand theories of history often have less utility than the claims they make for themselves. Marxism is a classic example.

But that does not mean that theories of history are useless. And arguably, Marxism is a classic example in this case too. Material forces and class conflicts can’t explain all of history, but they do explain some of history. Chris Wickham’s magisterial Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 suffers from its excessive materialist and economistic thesis, but it also benefits from this perspective, because it captures part of the answer.

Moderation in all things, and due consideration to the importance of viewpoints in coloring perceptions, are the keys to comprehension in my opinion..

Today in some quarters it is fashionable to reduce all of history to the interplay between white supremacy and nonwhite peoples, who are depicted implicitly as nearly supine “noble savages,” existing in an Edenic state of nature before the intrusion of European peoples. This is a silly viewpoint from a scholarly perspective, and some of the ideological implications are ones which I object to most strongly.

And yet that begs the question, how does one understand the forces of history? In the American context, I think it is critical to understand the elementary regional folkways which congealed into these United States, and whose “cultural DNA” echoes down through the generations. Much of this is implicit and invisible culture because it is the culture of white English -speaking peoples of British provenance (though not all were Anglo, such as the French Canadians or Hispanos of the southwest).

Recently, Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is the best example of this sort of work, which attempts to trace the historical dark matter the skeleton beneath the flesh. A more scholarly and narrow treatment can be found in David Hackett Fisher’s expansive Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Finally, perhaps the most underrated and overlooked offering in this genre is Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America.

While Woodward focuses on all of North America, and Fisher more narrowly on the four folkways which extend from New England to the Deep South, Phillips’ integrates an American history with a broader narrative that shows the connections to events and processes occurring in the British Isles, and in particular England. The peculiarities of New England culture and economics, and their love-hate relationship to the British elites of the late 18th and 19th century, are critical pieces of the puzzle in explaining how the United States diverged from the United Kingdom, and, how the United Kingdom diverged from the United States.

If an understanding of population genetics allows one to decompose evolution and broadly biological phenomena into tractable analytic units, so an understanding of the elementary units of American culture, and their historical antecedents, shines a whole new light upon contemporary developments.

January 27, 2011

American history in broad strokes

A comment below inquired about “good books” on American history. Unfortunately I don’t know as much about American history as I do about Roman or Chinese history. But over the years there have been several books which I find to have been very value-add in terms of understanding where we are now. In other words, these are works which operate with a broader theoretical framework, and aren’t just a telescope putting a spotlight on a sequence of facts.

Albion’s Seed. I read this in 2004, and it was a page turner.

The Cousins’ Wars. I had thought of Kevin Phillips as a political writer, but this was a very engaging and deep cultural history. My prejudice resulted in my not reading this until 2009.

What Hath God Wrought. This book focuses on the resistance of the Whigs and Greater New England to the cultural ascendancy of the Democrats and their “big-tent” coalition which included most of the South, the Mid-Atlantic, and much of the “Lower North” (e.g., the “butternut” regions of the Midwest settled from the Border South).

The Rise of American Democracy. This is a good compliment to the previous book, in that it takes the “other side,” that of the Democrats. In many ways this is the heir to Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson.

Throes of Democracy. A somewhat “chattier” book than the previous ones, it is still an informative read. It covers a period of history with the Civil War as its hinge, and so gives one the tail end of the Age of Sectionalism.

Freedom Just Around the Corner. By the same author, but covering a period of history overlapping more with Albion’s Seed.

The Age of Lincoln. This is not a “Civil War book.” It is of broader scope, though since the the war is right in the middle of the period which the book covers it gets some treatment. I’d judge this the “easiest” read so far of the list.

Replenishing the Earth. This is about the Anglo world more generally, but it is nice to plug in America into a more general framework. North America is not sui generis.

The English Civil War. This is obviously not focused on America, but it is a nice complement to Albion’s Seed, as it shows the very deep roots of the division between two of America’s folkways. The Cousins’ Wars serves as a bridge between the two, shifting as it does between both shores of the Atlantic.

I’m game for recommendations! I had a relatively traditional education in American history, and did very well in my advanced courses, but I knew very little before I read books like this.

Powered by WordPress