Was Philip Vickers Fithian a Pompous Ass and a Schlemiel?

Today my colonial America class helped me look up the definition of a word:

Schlemiel: “an unlucky bungler; chump.”

I don’t have much contact with Yiddish culture, so I have only heard this word used once. That was in the opening theme song of the 1970s sitcom “Laverne and Shirley” when the lead characters skip down the sidewalk chanting: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”

NOTE: We already had a pretty good sense of what “pompous ass” meant so we did not need to look it up.

These words were used to describe Philip Vickers Fithian in my favorite review of The Way of Improvement Leads Home so far. The review came from Andrew Shankman, a professor at Rutgers University-Camden. It appeared in the first edition of the snazzy new on-line journal: New Jersey History: Studies in State and Regional History. (Actually, it is an old journal in a new format and I am honored to sit on the editorial board). I must admit I have been chuckling over this creative and honest review all morning. (Andy, if you are reading this, thanks for making my day!) Shankman had many nice things to say about my work, but he despised the character of Philip Vickers Fithian as I portrayed him. I will let the review speak for itself:

I thought that Philip Vickers Fithian was an insufferable prig well before page 168, where John Fea informs us that Fithian‘s twentieth-century editors described him as such. Nevertheless, this erudite biography of such a judgmental epigone is an illuminating work of intellectual history that also has much to say about the Enlightenment, eighteenth-century education, rural life, Presbyterianism, and the American Revolution. Yet discussing Fea‘s considerable accomplishments exposes Fithian for the pompous ass he surely was.

Fea uses Fithian‘s life to explore significant issues of the American revolutionary era. He successfully challenges some central assumptions—the gulf between urban cosmopolitans and rural localists, and the irreconcilable tension between religiosity and the Enlightenment. Fithian, a striver and self-improver, was, first and foremost, of the rural world. Fea situates him in the Cohansey River region of southern New Jersey and lovingly demonstrates how at home he was there. Fithian was a yeoman‘s son. His formative years were organized around the rhythms of agriculture.

Fea shows how connected many rural localities were to a broader world. One link was Presbyterianism, which brought to regions like Cohansey educated ministers steeped in the latest learning. Presbyterians prized education and supported academies to prepare talented young men for higher education, especially at the Presbyterian College of New Jersey in Princeton. Presbyterians also embraced the French and especially the Scottish Enlightenment, brought to Princeton by its brilliant president, John Witherspoon. They drew on Enlightenment ideals of rationality and responsible control of emotions to end the conflict produced by the Great Awakening.

This locally oriented, cosmopolitan world produced Philip Vickers Fithian and countless others on the eve of the American Revolution. As a Presbyterian minister at Princeton, Fithian struggled, through his reading and extensive diary keeping, to lead a life at once pious, enlightened, rational, engaged, zealous for God, and in service of Man. Along the way he fell in love, preached in the backcountry, lived for a year in Virginia, and died in October 1776 as an army chaplain in service to his country.

By the end of the book I couldn‘t stand him. Fithian reliably licked the boots of his betters, mouthed the platitudes of his superiors, used many long words where a few small ones would do, and condescended to the poor and uneducated. On the great questions of his age, Fithian bravely insisted on occupying ground least likely to question injustices or to improve much of anything. Fithian spent the year in Virginia for which his diary is famous in awe of his employer Robert Carter. Not once (as Carter himself impressively would do) did his Enlightenment learning cause him to question the source of Carter‘s wealth. Revolutionary tensions caused Fithian to write imitative Whig-inspired history, though his leading preoccupation was that inferiors were becoming unruly. His examples were servants stealing horses and slaves stealing, well, themselves. Many Enlightenment thinkers wrestled with the problem of slavery in an age of revolution – Fithian not so much.

Fithian had problems with those he thought inferior. His backcountry flock was “barbarous, clownish, and ungospelized [sic] as Indians….” (p. 158). He often had to disguise his clerical costume afraid he would be mocked and assaulted. I assume his was the concern of many itinerants, though I do hope it was a particular fear for Fithian. Men of the backcountry, Fithian opined, had no conversation. No opinions would be proffered unless by Fithian himself. Of course his opinions were really just warmed-over Witherspoon.

Fithian really shone in his treatment of the ladies. When his long-adored Elizabeth Beatty rejected him, he helpfully explained her behavior to her in a letter. Women were “fond of being admired and flattered,” wrote Fithian, which was why she had succumbed to another. Fithian succeeded in breaking Betsy‘s attachment and married her. His triumph led him immediately to wonder whether he would love her once her looks went. In an extensive passage, he described in pitiless detail what Betsy would look like at age 60: “poorly supporting a pipe in a toothless mouth…her flabby wrinkled Bosom…lips…sunk down, like a mouldered Grave, upon her wasted gums….” The passage is considerably longer and, Fea allows, “…overly graphic…” (p. 171). More accurately, it‘s cruel, fetishistic, and neurotic. But Fithian had a problem with the body. His chief criticism of the backcountry barbarians was the one-room cabins and all the immodesty. I only wish Betsy had possessed a bit more of the spirit of one backcountry Irish girl who, when Fithian rose “in the morning, in the Blaze of day,” gazed scornfully “searching our subjects for Remark.” (p. 167).

That Fithian was shallow, self-important, and obnoxious really only adds to Fea‘s achievement. All of us are far less than we should be, and some of us try to improve. To improve in Fithian‘s eighteenth century was to be a pious, educated, enlightened, revolutionary who tried to merge love of home with graceful devotion to the world and those who lived in it. When he died young, this schlemiel had a long way to go.