In response to:
New World Symphony from the January 29, 1987 issue
To the Editors:
I was dismayed to read T.H. Breen’s review of my books, The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction and Voyagers to the West [NYR, January 29], not because it was critical but because it was so uninformative. Breen simply ignores the organization of Voyagers, carefully explained in the preface, which is a deliberate innovation: five distinctive modes of historical discourse—expository, statistical, analytic, graphic, and narrative—all directed at the same historical phenomenon. He may not consider this multiple approach successful, but it might be worth mentioning since it frames and organizes the whole long volume. Mr. Breen is not much interested in historical statistics either since he says nothing about the thirty-nine tables which form a baseline in eighteenth-century statistical information—statistics analyzed through a literary metaphor and combined, uniquely I believe, with the contents of merchants’ letter books. He misconstrues what I say about race relations, quoting a comment on bibliography to suggest that I intend to ignore race relations, a subject that will form a major part of the book to follow and that in fact forms much of the substance of the last part of the Peopling book, where I confront the issue in precisely the way he says I fail to do. He has nothing to say about either the contents or the technique of the micronarratives that fill most of the last several hundred pages of Voyagers and which allowed me to discuss events from north Yorkshire and the Orkneys to the Mississippi delta, and keep the whole business in some kind of control. He doesn’t even notice the visually most striking thing about Voyagers, the portfolio of paintings, commissioned for the book in an effort to depict the physical appearance of the migrants, paintings, some in color, some black and white, worked out in great detail by the artist and myself over a period of years, following in minute detail the contemporary descriptions of these people that appear in the newspapers.
He complains that there is nothing about Germans in Voyagers, not surprising since this is a book exclusively devoted to the British migration; and in the Peopling book, which sketches aspects of the project as a whole, there is considerable discussion of the Germans, a discussion that deliberately and clearly anticipates a full account to come later. He does not like my view of core and periphery (though he ends up using it himself) with its description of the mingling of savagery and gentility on the American periphery, because early New Englanders were literate, had a rule of law, and published books. But, as I wrote in Peopling, they also fought horrendously bloody race wars, slaughtering, burning, and devastating peaceful Indian villages in blind rages ignited by fear and by a religiously rationalized passion for retaliation. They also suffered the same treatment, and their publications include a progressively elaborated literature of the Indian captivities, which brought the horror of race warfare into the marrow of their culture.
Breen claims that I never manage to rise above the swirl of human movement (a compliment of sorts), having just declared that I “discerned clear patterns” in the complex movement of peoples and having just filled his own paragraphs with summaries of my structuring and analysis of that swirl; and then he caps it all by saying that it is the same failure for which I once criticized Braudel, which is precisely the opposite of what I actually wrote (too much structure, abstractly conceived). And the one example he produces of my incapacity to rise above the human swirl is my failure to relate migration to Revolutionary ideology, which happens not to be the subject of this book, and which leads Breen to plunge straight into a brick wall. Running helter-skelter with the idea of “an expanding market economy…fueled by consumer desire” (the subject of his own current research, quite compatible, incidentally, with what I have presented in these books) he decides that the psychological characteristics of these people, which I describe in detail in Voyagers, fit neatly the ideological themes of the Revolutionary movement, which I wrote about earlier. Very perceptive of Mr. Breen, except that if he had read the last chapters of Voyagers with any care he would have discovered that a surprising number of these migrants became, not revolutionaries but Loyalists.
I can only hope that some, at least, of your readers will read the books despite Mr. Breen’s confusions and misrepresentations. They might enjoy doing so, though Mr. Breen, more concerned with his own writings than with the books he was supposed to be reviewing, obviously did not.
T.H Breen replies:
It is surprising that Professor Bailyn would take such issue with a review that was meant to be appreciative. Readers of The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction and Voyagers to the West—and I am certain that there will be many—will ultimately determine whether my review or the alternative one contained in Bailyn’s hypersensitive letter comes closer to representing adequately the books’ achievement.
But since Professor Bailyn has chosen to concentrate mainly on the few objections that I offered in my review, I would like to remind readers of this journal of the positive qualities of these two books. The review concluded by observing that Bailyn has produced “the most stimulating study of early American migration” that I have read. Nothing in his letter leads me to change that opinion. Bailyn had taken on the formidable challenge of providing “a coherent structure for early American history,” something that no scholar has attempted in the last half-century. Thus, I describe the project as “truly Braudelian in scope,” a phrase meant to convey the exciting potentialities of the study. But exciting or not, the enterprise is fraught with difficulties.
Professor Bailyn seems irritated that I did not highlight the innovative organization of Voyagers or the statistical methods employed in analyzing the official registers of British migrants. Rather, I elected to focus attention on Bailyn’s provocative reinterpretation of early American history, especially on the arguments advanced in Peopling, a work that Bailyn himself describes as “an introduction to the overall project.” The impressive synthesis Professor Bailyn has made seemed to me more deserving of the attention of the readers of The New York Review than the details of his methodology and statistics.
On one topic, however, Professor Bailyn and I agree: the need for further attention to native Americans and blacks. The essentially Eurocentric perspective that he adopts in these initial volumes makes it more difficult for the general reader to appreciate the complex and creative patterns of racial interaction that occurred throughout the colonies. Given his perspective, Bailyn is led to ask, “What did it mean to Jefferson, slave owner and philosophe, that he grew up in this far western borderland world of Britain, looking out from Queen Anne rooms of spare elegance onto a wild, uncultivated land?” (Peopling, p. 131) But from other perspectives one wonders what Jefferson’s cultivated world, spare or not, meant to the members of other races who peopled the continent. Bailyn assures us in his letter that these and other subjects will be covered in appropriate detail in the subsequent volumes in his series. In the end, Bailyn and I differ largely on matters of perspective. Perhaps perspective is always the difference between authors and reviewers?