A Healthy American Diversity

Note to readers: postings may be lighter in the next few weeks, but I will continue to put up at least a short entry each Friday (plus or minus a day) in accordance with the policy for this blog. Thanks to all for your support and for your excellent comments! 

Have you ever investigated the origins of the town or community where you grew up? If you are lucky there may be a museum on this theme located at one of the prominent buildings or sites of the area; local libraries and local government also often have information.  I recently started paying more attention to such issues (for reasons I need not explain to my regular readers) and now try to pull over in my car when I pass a historical marker, statue, or the like. 

Compared with Europe, America’s historical sites are often modest and relatively new; and some of the most important sites may have been destroyed or burned down long ago. But the key to appreciating historical sites is to bring your imagination. It is not the place itself, but the people and the stories it conjures up, that move one’s feelings. In that respect the amazing story of America’s growth as a country makes even a humble building or mound of earth a vital link to our larger people and nation. 

In the Midwest, where I grew up, the typical town was founded in the first half of the 19th century by a semi-spontaneous grouping of settlers, usually of a particular ethnic and religious character, and directed by community leaders, educated men with wealth and with a philanthropic desire to create an attractive and permanent community. One thing that amazes me is how highly developed American towns were by the late 19th century. The same town 100 years ago was an utterly different place than it is today, although the basic layout is the same and some prominent buildings remain. And it is not necessarily the case that the town today is more developed than it was in the past. For instance, in my hometown, streetcars used to run regularly to the nearest, larger towns, 10 miles or more away, and railroads linked it to major cities. All of these conveniences are gone and you essentially have to drive everywhere now. Also, in the 19th century, it was possible to see famous lecturers and performers in surprisingly rural areas, booked by organizations like the Lyceums and the Chautauquas. The Midwest was also dotted with fancy resorts located near lakes and other scenic areas, where the wealthy could enjoy boating and health treatments and ice cream and other luxuries. I would give the health treatments a miss, but otherwise can’t see what is so much better about today’s environment! 

I have recently been reading James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789-1851) early novel The Pioneers (1823). (Here is the website for a society that promotes Cooper’s work.) It includes a great deal of description of a town founded by one Judge Marmaduke Temple and modeled after Cooperstown, New York, founded by Cooper’s own father. Cooper himself admits the novel’s weakness (general to his fiction) of an overabundance of descriptive passages of nature, discussions of history and the character of the community, and long dialogues having little to do with the plot. In fact, after about 150 pages the plot can be described in just a few sentences. The story is set in 1793. Judge Temple, a widower with a beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, whom he is escorting home from boarding school, gets in a disagreement with an old woodsman, Natty Bumppo, over who shot a buck. The Judge’s unskilled shot had lodged a ball in the shoulder of Natty’s companion, a mysterious young man, part Indian, named Oliver Edwards. Oliver is brought back to the Judge’s estate to have the ball removed by a local doctor, with the help of John Mohegan, the Delaware, who applies Indian remedies. The villagers then all attend a Christmas Eve sermon by an Episcopalian priest, and the main characters gather in an inn to drink. It is hinted that a romance will develop between Elizabeth and Oliver.

However, I find the non-essential material to be extremely interesting in itself for its description of an early American community. One can honestly say that early American towns like the fictional Templeton were quite “diverse,” so much so that Cooper feels compelled to “explain the reason why we have been obliged to present so motley a dramatis personae” (implying that American communities had already become more homogeneous a few decades after the time of the story). The cast of characters includes local persons who sound “New England” or even a bit Irish, like the housekeeper with the wonderful name Remarkable Pettibone, or the proprietors of the inn “The Bold Dragoon.” There is a Frenchman, Monsieur Le Quoi, owner of a general store and a former French nobleman in exile following the French Revolution. There is a German, Major Hartmann. There are the woodsmen, Natty and Oliver, and the Indian John (Chingachgook, an aged Christian convert who seems at any moment ready to revert to savagery). There is the black slave Aggy (Agamemnon). There are Quakers, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Universalists.

Now, it is common these days for historians to focus on the supposedly marginalized people of America, such as women (yes, 50% of the population was marginalized), blacks, Indians, religious minorities, and so forth. It is also standard to focus on the “diversity” of early American society, to bring history more in line with the present-day marginalization of the historic white Christian majority. A newer history of colonial America, Alan Taylor’s American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2002), exemplifies this approach. According to the Publisher’s Weekly review quoted on Amazon, the work

…challenges traditional Anglocentric interpretations of colonial history by focusing more evenly on the myriad influences on North America’s development. Beginning with the Siberian migrations across the Bering Straits 15 millennia ago, Taylor lays out the complicated road map of ownership, occupation and competition involving the Native Americans, African slaves and Spanish, Dutch, French and English colonists. He covers settlement and conquest from Canada to Mexico, and from the West Indies and mainland colonies to the Pacific islands. “The colonial intermingling of peoples and of microbes, plants, and animals from different continents was unparalleled in speed and volume in global history,” he writes.

Entirely by coincidence I see that Taylor previously wrote a history of Cooperstown, New York, called William Cooper’s Town! Perhaps his theme of the diversity of the early American population was influenced by The Pioneers.

Taylor’s history is full of fascinating information and I may write more about it in the future. However, it is completely lacking in the sense of the particular American nationhood we are concerned with in this weblog. Or, more accurately, it explicitly aims to undermine that sense of nationhood. Since “America” is simply a name we attach to a mass of people who live in a particular geographic region, and is the product of various random struggles for power between brown-skinned people, black-skinned people, and white-skinned people (as well as microbes and animals), from which the English-speaking whites ended up temporarily on top as a result of luck and cruelty, there is no sense of a history that links us with our forebears and explains who we are. The result is odd statements treating white settlers and their black slaves both as “immigrants,” one group of whom unaccountably oppressed the other. And there is the usual bias against the white settlers, evident in the use of language, as noted by at least one Amazon reviewer. 

Yet if we look at the town in Cooper’s novel, we should also note the homogeneity of the populace in important qualities. First, all the settlers are white and at least nominally Christian (there are no Jewish characters, though perhaps they appear elsewhere in Cooper’s work). They all speak English, though in a variety of dialects and accents, which provide spice and humor to the story. The Indian is Christianized and lives on the outskirts of the community; the black slaves are simply subordinate laborers. 

Further, the lives of the settlers are intimately connected. The whole town is managed under the aegis of the Judge, the owner of most of the land, who settles disputes and directs the construction of a local academy and other public works. Indirectly, he decides to some extent who gets to live in the village. People help each other in times of trouble and need, and of course everybody knows everybody else’s business. They argue about religious issues, but share basic values and pride themselves upon having “a moral community.” Furthermore, people who break the law are swiftly punished – the stocks are still in use in this town. It is not hard to see how in a generation or two the people of such a town would be much more homogeneous. 

Furthermore, though there is an American disdain for European notions of class, there definitely exists a wealthy, educated (by the standards of the time) elite who have authority in the community but also a sense of responsibility for contributing to its excellence. This is personified by the somewhat vain but well-intentioned and intelligent Judge Temple. In fact, Temple is a kind of environmentalist, critical of settlers who waste the timber and hunt recklessly. He has a sense of his own position, admonishing his housekeeper for calling his daughter “Elizabeth” and forcing her to use the term “Miss Temple,” much to the housekeeper’s chagrin. It is only stating the obvious to suggest that the character of our American communities was shaped by community leaders like Marmaduke Temple. If new American developments and communities are as characterless as they seem to me today, does that not suggest that our new leaders are lacking in some basic qualities of character and education? 

A question for another time. Meanwhile, the diversity of early Templeton (Cooperstown) suggests to me a model for those of us trying to strengthen European-American community. We are inevitably diverse – Northern and Southern, elite and working class, belonging to various sects or no sect at all. Yet we have to come together in our common heritage and work to build the foundation for our communities of the future. (We may also find that the old wars and rivalries with those of other European nationality are now irrelevant, making possible some very interesting and rewarding interactions with people in other countries.) So maybe we should indeed learn to “celebrate diversity,” as the multiculturalists put it. Not the false, anti-American diversity they speak of, but our own American diversity. “Out of many, one,” indeed.

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