Was Philip Vickers Fithian an Agrarian?

Granted, he was no Wendell Berry, but Fithian wrestled greatly with his connection to land and place. He loved his “Cohansey” home in southern New Jersey home and never found a cosmopolitan life completely satisfying. He believed that to be truly human one needed to be connected to a piece of earth, family and friends, and a religious faith.

I learned a lot from Berry and his fellow agrarians as I was writing my book on Fithian, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. (I even slipped “Jayber Crow” into the acknowledgements!). You could say that agrarianism of the Berry variety was the “theory” that informed a good portion of the book.

Here is a piece I wrote a while ago over at The Front Porch Republic which explores more fully the moral question at the heart of my book: “Does the way of improvement leads home?”

Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home?

First, let me extend my greetings to the readers of the Front Porch Republic. I have been following conversations here at FPR since it launched earlier this year and find myself resonating with its mission. So needless to say I was quite flattered when Jeremy Beer asked me to take a turn as a guest blogger.

I am guessing that part of the reason I was asked to join this impressive group of writers was because my book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), touches on themes near and dear to the heart of this on-line community. On one level, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is a traditional academic monograph. It is being reviewed in all of the important scholarly journals and, as a contribution to eighteenth-century historiography, it offers a new way of thinking about the Enlightenment in America and its relationship to Christianity, the Revolution, and everyday life. I argue against the predominant view in my field that “rural Enlightenment” is an oxymoron. By examining the life of an ordinary eighteenth-century farmer—the prolific New Jersey diarist Philip Vickers Fithian—I show how ideas permeated the hinterlands and influenced grain-growers in remote locales.

On another level, I have been pleasantly surprised that The Way of Improvement Leads Home is finding a readership among those interested in questions related to place and community. This book tells the story of a young man of great ambition who embraced the new opportunities that Enlightenment progress and self-improvement had to offer. Fithian drank deeply from the well of modernity, but his “way of improvement” was by no means a smooth one. Modern opportunity often conflicted with his strong and abiding passion for “home,” a term I use broadly in the title to describe his longings for his family farm on the banks of New Jersey’s Cohansey River, his desire for friendship with his future wife, his love with those he called “friends and relations,” and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety.

In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical. It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain. Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in “compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism. However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip’s story so interesting. His attempt at easing them is the focus of my book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian’s “rural Enlightenment.”

My study of this ordinary farmer argues that a modern life could be lived locally—even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

I thus hope that the moral argument of this book might shine through some of my more academic historiographical musings. Philip Vickers Fithian reminds us that cosmopolitanism, that “great” product of modernity, has always existed in compromise with local attachments. Fithian was a member of the republic of letters and a citizen of a particular place. If true republicans were also true world citizens, then Fithian’s cosmopolitan spirit was nurtured within the context of his Cohansey River home, complete with the social networks of friends, relatives, and loves that came with it.

I hope this was an appropriate way to begin my one-month stint at the Front Porch Republic. In a world of cosmopolitan ambitions that lead to social mobility, geographical mobility, and a general sense of placelessness, my hope and prayer is that sometimes the “way of improvement” might lead us “home.”