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The Worm’s Eye View

In response to:

Original Sins from the February 5, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

This letter is in reply to Lawrence Stone’s misconceived review of my book, In English Ways [NYR, February 5]. While space will not permit a point-by-point refutation of Stone’s attack, several of his more fanciful generalities can be addressed in some fashion.

He begins by stating the obvious, that a transfer of culture from England to five Massachusetts towns in the seventeenth century is “hardly a startling discovery”—a point I also make. Yet he ignores the fact, also made in the book, that American historiography has taken, until recently, a very different position on this issue, arguing that an American environment transformed distinctive English traditions from the very beginning. It is time to redress the imbalance.

Stone further believes that I refuse to take notice of differences between old and New England. But in stating this point, he only reaffirms the sentiment that I express over and over again—namely, that New Englanders perpetuated Old World traditions in spite of new conditions, and that in fact the new environment often helped preserve distinctive English regional differences. The contrasts which he notes—geographical and demographic (neither very distinctly), social, and religious—are discussed throughout the book, but Stone’s “macrocosmic” view of seventeenth-century England distorts the reality of what actually occurred in the provinces. The contrast is less black and white than he imagines. Demographically, for example, the “normal European high rate of mortality” almost ceased to exist in England after mid-century while population rose twofold between about 1550 and 1700.

By contrast, the English population in New England did not increase during the earliest decades after settlement, then it quadrupled by the end of the century. I discuss the implications of that surge in my final chapters. As to the importance of local, resident gentry in England (and their absence in New England), I have found that few existed in the localities from which the emigration began. Their role (or lack of it) is discussed in my book. We may also dismiss Stone’s views on a monolithic puritanism in New England as no other historian now accepts such a rigid characterization. Likewise, English puritan parishes from Yorkshire to East Anglia appear to have operated in a localistic manner—in some cases for generations—without regard to “an all-embracing state church.” By denying that I have dealt with these issues, Stone argues that I have produced a “distorted picture of reality”—one which he claims was not ignored by Greven, Demos, and Lockridge ten years ago. Yet aside from comparing their demographic results with a few English (and French) studies, I find little evidence that the authors of those books addressed these four “critical variables.”

Although Stone does not seem to disagree with my view that early Massachusetts towns contained fairly homogeneous populations from specific English regions, he dismisses those that I have chosen because he thinks they are “abnormally” homogeneous. But whether the degree of concentration was 40 to 50, or 70 to 80 percent of the population is, I think, irrelevant. In some towns, for instance, only a fairly homogeneous group of town leaders was needed to institute certain practices and traditions. In choosing these towns, however, my overriding concern was to find locations on both sides of the Atlantic with source material adequate enough to document the process of cultural transfer. In making that determination, it became possible, for instance, to pick three adjoining Massachusetts towns with West Country, North Country, and East Anglian origins to test for the persistence of traditions despite the competition of nearby, rival views.

The underlying difference between Stone and myself, however, is his attempt to involve me in his own controversies with other historians, most notably with those of the “county community” school. Stone faults my book as an “extreme example” of the work of those historians who, in his opinion, are guilty of “intemperate excesses in removing all national issues from the history of the period.” Yet my Chapter 6 on the migration of Englishmen to America can hardly be called an attempt to escape from extra-local concerns. More to the point, however, is the all too obvious fact that the works which he criticizes focus on the gentry, not the yeomen, husbandmen, small tradesmen, and other, humbler folk who, by and large, made up the Great Migration. Whether this class of people was concerned with national issues in ways other than those I describe remains for Stone to prove.

David Grayson Allen

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Lawrence Stone replies:

It is an unfortunate commonplace of intellectual life for an author to complain that a less than enthusiastic reviewer has misunderstood or misrepresented him. In such cases there is not much point in raking over points of detail, and it is better left to the readers of the book to judge for themselves whether or not injustice has been done.

In his last paragraph, however, Dr. Allen raises a point of wider historiographical importance about the value of small community studies, against which he accuses me of prejudice. In fact I am on record as giving high praise to the great regional histories of the last twenty years,1 but it is true that I have doubts about the significance of some—but not all—of the microcosmic studies of single villages which are now beginning to appear. In the first place, it remains to be proved whether or not so mobile and crisis-torn a population as that of a seventeenth-century English village retained much community consciousness. Many or most of these villages were being ripped apart by the multiple stresses of enclosure for pasture, demographic pressure, vagrancy, a market economy, and widening economic, ideological and religious chasms between rich and poor. Maybe English villagers were already approaching the condition of the French peasantry of the nineteenth century, described by Marx as no more cohesive than “potatoes in a sack.”

In the second place, I fear that so lengthy and intensive a study of so minute a group often makes it all too easy for the author to overlook wider factors and influences. And yet few historians would today claim that the values and experiences of even a husbandman or small trader in seventeenth-century England were limited to the confines of his village.2 Maybe the kinship group, or the social class, or the church, or the sect, or the county, or the region, or even the state had stronger claims on his emotional loyalty, and greater effects upon his behavior. It may turn out that the “closed corporate community” regained some of its authority in the wilderness of Massachusetts which it had already lost in the fair fields of England. But this is an evolution not likely to be visible from the worm’s eye point of view. These are my two basic reservations about the approach to history adopted by Dr. Allen.

  1. 1

    L. Stone, “English and United States Local History,” Daedalus, Winter, 1971.

  2. 2

    See, for example, the arguments for internal social dislocation and external influences put forward by C. Holmes, Seventeenth Century Lincolnshire, Lincoln, 1980; or by K. Wrightson and D. Levine, Poverty and Piety in an English Village, New York, 1979.

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