The Fall of the Gentry

The Transformation of Virginia: 1740-1790

by Rhys Isaac
University of North Carolina Press, 451 pp., $29.50

It would be hard not to like this book. It places familiar events in new perspectives. It uses new techniques for making the past surrender meanings not previously available. It gives the reader a visual experience missing in most historical works by using illustrations as part of the argument. Not since that forgotten classic The Wind that Swept Mexico by Anita Brenner and George R. Leighton have I seen illustrations so effectively combined with text.

The author’s purpose is to reconstruct the society that had developed in Virginia by 1740 and then to observe the transformation that it underwent in the succeeding fifty years. There is, as always in historical works, an implication that this particular transformation was somehow more curcial than any that occurred in the preceding or succeeding half century. But we have to forgive an author this sort of myopia. The question is how well he is able to see, and make us see, the society and social changes of his chosen time and place.

What distinguishes Isaac’s vision is his insistence that relationships among people in any society must be understood not only through the written records of what they said about themselves (which are not in this case voluminous) but also through mute kinds of evidence that the historian must learn to “read” as “statements.” He must extract social relations from what people did to the landscape, from what sort of houses they lived in, from their festivities and amusements as well as their work. In this examination he will make large use of physical survivals—houses and house plans, for example. Although he may have to rely mainly on the written record, he will read it for what he discerns behind it, like an anthropologist trying to discover the patterns of pre-Columbian Indian society from the casual and uncomprehending remarks of the invading Europeans. The method, in fact, is borrowed from ethnographic anthropology, and the author supplies a lengthy explanation of it at the end of the book.

The Virginia of 1740 that this method reveals contains few surprises. It is composed of three elements. The first is a group of great tobacco planters, presiding over princely domains worked by groups of black slaves, who form a second element. The third is composed of independent small farmers with no slaves or very few, who also are engaged in growing tobacco for the world market. While the planters dominate the whole society and not simply their slaves, each of the component elements has its own character. For Rhys Isaac that character, as well as the changing character of the society, is to be found in greater or lesser degrees of individualism and communalism. He gives no precise definition to these terms but allows their meaning to develop from his reading of the different kinds of surviving evidence.

The prevalence of communalism or individualism in each of the three elements is most strikingly exhibited in their housing. Originally almost all Virginia houses were …

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