Malcolm Gaskill is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. This interview is based on his new book, Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans (Basic Books, November 2014).
JF: What led you to write Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans?
MG: I had been writing a book called Witchfinders, about a major witch-hunt that afflicted eastern England in the 1640s, and started wondering what happened to all the people in those depressed and divided communities who chose not to wait around for the English Civil War and the ensuing witchcraft panic. Of course, as you might guess, most who fled emigrated to America, but few historians of England seemed terribly interested in them. These desperate, intrepid folk just exited stage left across the Atlantic – and were gone.
MG: Rather than embracing any sort of ‘American’ identity, colonists worked hard to remain English, a restless striving which ironically made them feel in themselves, and seem to others, different from their compatriots in England. In particular, early settlers struggled to carry on being subjects of the English crown, enjoying the right to be ruled as freeborn people according to an ‘ancient constitution’, but found that successive monarchs did not value their natural loyalty to England above their blind obedience to the English state.
JF: Why do we need to read Between Two Worlds?
MG: I think it corrects an imbalance. I’m British and for twenty years my expertise has been in seventeenth-century England, so I look at early America differently from US citizens raised with a certain kind of school history curriculum, Thanksgiving pageants, and other national myths and legends. My purpose in writing the book was not to trace the origins of the United States, but to capture something of the nature and meaning of America for English people, long before anything like modern America existed. If we jump back to, say, to the year 1600, and work forwards from there, we discover that nothing in the building of America was inevitable, or even planned – indeed, in their infancy most colonies seemed unlikely to survive, not least because a lack of support from home. We also find that the islands of the West Indies, omitted from most colonial history (because they did not prove to be the seeds of future US cities and states), were by far the most popular American destination and the most important territories for the English state. Too many British historians overlook the place of America in seventeenth-century English society, culture and politics, and too many American historians take for granted the supposed semi-magical conversion of European immigrants into Americans, and regard these people’s old world motherlands as a sort of vague back-story, of dubious relevance, fading away in the distance.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MG: I still don’t consider myself to be an American historian, just a British historian of English people, 350,000 of whom happened to leave England (many temporarily) to live in America. Between Two Worlds seeks to claim back some familiar American history as unfamiliar English history, or at least to raise awareness of a different perspective, one where England remained a dynamic presence in the hearts and minds of seventeenth-century colonists.
JF: What is your next project?
MG: I’m working on a short book about an explosion of witchcraft accusations in a Massachusetts frontier town in the 1650s. When misfortunes in the community start to seem more than natural, the married couple at the centre of the story not become only the target of local suspicions, but start accusing either other of this most diabolical of crimes. I’m still researching what was going on – it’s a truly bizarre episode – but the black mood in the town seems to have darkened in the late 1640s partly due to the professed heretical beliefs of its founder, magistrate and governor. It’s such a great story because you see the conflicted values of New England society, godly and worldly by turns, devastatingly played out in public, with everything from the secrets of the bedroom to the religious policies of the state laid bare, analyzed and contested, and the ways of righteousness and order painfully restated.