The Peopling of the British North America: An Introduction – 4/5 Stars
I am not sure how I would have taken this book if I hadn’t already read one of the later constituent parts. This short introduction is both of those things: short and an introduction. It’s also an edited version of a lecture series, and it’s also an historical argument that gets more fully articulated in two later volumes of about 700 pages each, so it’s no surprise that they get short shrift here.
The basic idea to the whole project is to try to understand what it means to understand the “peopling of British North America” from about 1600-1800. So what first has to happen is to understand what this means. To define this, Bailyn gives us a few things to consider. He wants us to imagine what a satellite would be able to know and show us if it flew overhead the American continent in the mid 17th century. Now of course, we can’t do that, but it helps to make sense more about what he’s actually trying to capture here, and what limits there are to this goal. Too much of history is spent around singular events and the biographies of specific individuals, and even in the most eventful of lives, the most of the time is spent doing very little except the regularities of everyday life. So this huge mass of information is impossible to record, and through that impossibility we end up with only a partial understanding of life in that time and place. The second idea he wants to think about is that life in the United States (what would become that is) was not really meant to be anything any different than an extension of life in whatever place a person coming to America is coming from. Different goals and motivations abound, but they brought with them a life and culture wholly created and formed in that other place, and for the most part they attempted to implant it here. He also wants us to think about the rings of Saturn. From far away they appear solid, in definite shapes, and cohesive, but up close they become granular and atomic. That’s what history is. A solid picture from afar (that also creates a false sense of singularity) and a much more chaotic and individuated picture up close. Lastly, his history takes on the allusion of William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. Bailyn wants to know what made up this land, and seeks to find out, and at least mark where that becomes impossible.
It’s just the argument behind the project, but it provides the ethos as you move forward.
The Barbarous Years – 4/5 Stars
I am slowly working through long histories of the United States from pre-arrival of Europe to the contemporary. I don’t know if I have a specific goal except to fill in gaps and relearn and reacquaint myself with a lot of it. There’s not a lot of long books about the 17th century, and reading this one did help to shed light on why. According to the Bailyn, the data just doesn’t really exist for the minute kinds of analysis to really get into granular details about the time. This came up when I read Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, which found the same problem. There’s a fair amount of writing, mostly European, and the records themselves are not exact.
But this book tries to find a way through the evidence that’s available, to avoid relying heavily on the previous histories written, except where the work there holds up, and to make more sense of the first 75 years of the century, stopping basically right before the war with the Pequot in New England.
One of the things that happens in this book (and this is in me and part of what I am looking for in rereading this history) is to better understand the history of North America in context with what I know about the history of Europe. So, for example, the founding of Jamestown is happening at the same time as the last writings of Shakespeare. It’s strange to think of the centuries as: Queen Elizabeth dies, and then almost next Jamestown. In addition, a reminder that we are dealing a lot with English subjects here in Jamestown and New England, the English Civil War occurs during this same time period, even though in my head it happened 100s of years earlier.
Another good thing about this book, that really worked for me, is that it took the question of who came to America and how, and worked geographically from south to north, and that means we begin and end with the most familiar history, but in the middle we get a lot of interesting (and unknown to me) history of Baltimore and New Amsterdam (why they changed it? Now I know).