Most Popular Posts of the Week

Here are the ten most visited posts this week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

1.  The Top Ten Most Religious Cities in America (November 2010).
2.  The Most Awkward Family Photos Ever (November 2010).
3.  The Antidote to Black Friday Consumerism (November 2010).
4.   Do You Produce Enough Scholarship to Merit a 2-2 Teaching Load? (November 2010).
5.  Yawn Outside (November 2010).
6.  Joe Posnanski on Springteen’s The Promise (November 2010).
7.  Does Sarah Palin Speak in Tongues? (August 2008).
8.  Super-Sizing DaVinci’s Last Supper (March 2010).
9.  Religion in Jamestown (July 2009).
10. How to Cite Facebook and Twitter (January 2010).

Also receiving votes:

Way of Improvement Leads Home Chosen As Top Religion Blog

A study by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) has included The Way of Improvement Leads Home on the list of the 100 “most influential blogs that contribute to online discussion about religion in the public sphere and the academy.” You can read SSRC’s study of academic and religious blogging here and see the top 100 blogs here. I hope to blog about the report soon.

Here is the study’s description of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home”:

John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College, offers commentary on “the intersection of American history, religion, politics, and academic life.” Blog posts focus on American religious history, current dilemmas concerning the role of religion in public education, and questions regarding the religious inflection of historical narratives. Messiah College, where Fea professes, is “committed to an embracing evangelical spirit rooted in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions of the Christian Church.”

Others on the list include:

Articles of Faith (Boston Globe)
Christianity Today Blog
Crunchy Con
Dallas Morning News Religion Blog
dotCommonweal (Commonweal magazine)
Faith and Theology
First Things Blogs
Get Religion
God and Country (US News and World Report)
God’s Politics (Sojourners)
The Immanent Frame (SSRC)
In All Things (America magazine)
Killing the Buddha
Martin Marty Center (University of Chicago Divinity School)
Of Sacred and Secular (Austin American-Statesman)
On Faith (Newsweek-Washington Post)
Religion Dispatches
Religion in American History
Theolog (Christian Century)

We are honored to part of such great company!

Seton Hall Lecture

On Wednesday I will be giving a lecture on The Way of Improvement Leads Home at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ (the birthplace of my father!). If you are in the area it will be good to see you or meet you.

ADDENDUM: I have now received two e-mails about this so let me set the record straigjt. I am going to Seton Hall to give a lecture. It has nothing to do with Seton Hall’s search for a new early Americanist. I am not a candidate.

Anyone Teaching or Reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home This Semester?

Last semester several colleges and university professors assigned The Way of Improvement Leads Home in their courses. This past weekend I heard about a discussion of the book in a graduate class on writing biography at the University of Chicago. A group at Northwestern College in Minneapolis is reading the text as part of a recently started student Junto. It is being read by undergraduates and graduates this semester at Seton Hall.

If you are a professor who has assigned The Way of Improvement Leads Home or if you are a student who is reading it in a class, I would love to hear from you. jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu

Vladimir the Barber-Philosopher

I have now mentioned a few times on this blog how I slipped the name “Jayber Crow” into the acknowledgments of both The Way of Improvement Leads Home and an earlier Journal of American History essay by the same title. (By the way, if you want some insight into how to teach the article or the book, the Journal of American History has featured it in their pedagogical series, “Teaching the JAH.”)

As some of you know, Jayber Crow is not a real person. He is the barber in Wendell Berry‘s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky and the title character in Berry’s greatest novel to date, Jayber Crow. Jayber’s barbershop on the main street of Port William is one of the places where the local farmers go to hang out and solve all the problems of the world.

Something about me is deeply drawn to the way Jayber’s shop is a place where community and place are cultivated among the men of Port William. Perhaps it reminds me of Carlos’s Barbershop on the corner of Main Street and Boonton Avenue in the town of Boonton, New Jersey where I grew up. Carlos and his brother Frank, both Italian immigrants (or perhaps sons of immigrants), would hold court in their shop as the Boonton locals wandered in and waited for the next chair to open up. As a young lad I would sit there quietly and listen, usually with my Dad and my two brothers by my side. I never thought I made any impression on Carlos or Frank until I walked in about six or seven years after I graduated from college and both of them recognized me and asked me about what I was doing with my life. Shortly thereafter, Carlos died unexpectedly.

I thought about Jayber, Carlos, and Frank today as I sat down to get my hair cut by my current barber–Vladimir. Vladimir is a Russian immigrant. He grew up in Moscow, but he has lived in the United States for about thirty years. Vladimir is smart, or at least he thinks he is. When I sit in his chair I need to be prepared to talk about anything from Russian history to how one balances their loyalty to family with their loyalty to their country. In other words, don’t talk about sports or movies.

Today, as might be expected, the topic turned to Haiti. Vladimir argued that the people of Haiti should have never tried to revolt against French colonization in the 18th century. Imperialism could be a good thing, he argued. Once the French left Haiti everything went down hill. He also pointed to the way the Soviets modernized eastern Russia in the early 20th century.

One of the things I like about Vladimir is that if you challenge his beliefs he is at least willing to listen. Actually, he is quite polite. I asked if he would be willing to trade his liberty if it meant having the modern improvements that imperialism or colonization might provide. I always hesitate bringing up these kinds of moral quandaries with Vladimir because it normally means that I end up sitting in his chair talking long after the actual haircut is finished. In today’s debate Vladimir was particularly passionate. I could tell he was enjoying this immensely. So was I. And, by the way, Joy liked the haircut.

I like writing posts for “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” and having a small space here in the blogosphere, but I am not sure what I would do if I could not chat with Vladimir and the other people I encounter by living my life here in this place. For me, the “way of improvement” must, in some way, lead me “home.”

Andy Catlett, Philip Vickers Fithian, and Place

This morning I finished Wendell Berry’s Andy Catlett: Early Travels. (You can read my previous post on this novel here). It is a short, moving and simple story of a nine-year old boy developing an affection for a place that will last throughout his lifetime. (By mere coincidence, the novel ends on New Years Day, 1943).

What I love about Berry is how he completely inverts the common narrative of how a young boy “comes of age” in America. If you are looking for a Ben Franklin or Horatio Alger “coming of age” story here, you will not find it. How refreshing!

When Andy Catlett “travels” (ten miles by bus) he goes from his parents’ house in Hargrave (which Berry describes as a town “with the modern ambition to be what it was not”) to Port William. Andy does not “find himself,” like Benjamin Franklin did when he left Puritan Boston for Philadelphia, in a big city filled with opportunities and possibilities. Instead, he “finds himself” in the context of a place–a community with no real “prospects,” but a community nonetheless. Andy “comes of age” in a place that, by the standards of modern progress, is on the way out. There is no future in Port William. But rather than rejecting the limits that such a rural and agricultural town places on his life, Andy embraces those limits and finds real happiness in Port William. This is a place in which he can invest himself.

As I read Andy Catlett, I could not help but think about the eighteenth-century “coming of age” of Philip Vickers Fithian. Though Fithian was a bit more ambitious than young Andy, he also maintained a deep connection to his “beloved Cohansie,” the small Delaware Bay communities nestled along the Cohansey River in what today is Cumberland County, New Jersey.

Here are a few passages from The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Philip Vickers Fithian loved springtime on the Cohansey. As winter bid its farewell to the village along the river, Philip rejoiced in the morning sounds of birds keeping “a continual round of engaging music.” His soul was refreshed by the “feathery choir” of the bluebirds singing their “melody to God of nature on account of the approaching spring.” Even the frogs on the riverbank caught his attention as they filled the evening air “with their shrill and deafening voices.” From his bedchamber window Philip could see peach, apple, and cherry trees coming to life on his family’s farm. “The Spring now displays its gaiety and exalted grandeur in bloom and pride,” he wrote in May 1767; “the Apple and the Cherry trees are in the extremity of their glory, and the Trees of the wood, arraying themselves in green.” Delaware Bay’s southwesterly breezes felt fresh and warm. Indeed, spring was the time of year when Philip reflected most intently on the virtues of home.

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that “no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet. Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet. He was a patriot it he classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land.

As he grew in intellect and learning and, as we will see, was exposed to a kind of life outside of Cohansey that few of his neighbors and none of his ancestors had ever experienced, the beckoning of home would become that much greater. As a child of the Enlightenment and one of the region’s first native-born college graduates, Philip could have easily transcended–culturally, geographically, intellectually–Cohansey’s warm confines. However, he also knew that his pursuit of self-betterment was held in check by what Karl Marx would later describe as “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” In an eighteenth-century world where young people started to believe that self-improvement was possible, Philip realized that the limits imposed by the past anchored him and had just as much impact on who he was and what he would become as did the optimism of the Enlightenment stream from which he would drink so deeply.

"Another Year is Gone"

And so Philip Vickers Fithian began his January 1, 1774 diary entry. The young and impressionable New Jersey native and recent Princeton graduate was writing from Virginia’s Northern Neck where he was a tutor at “Nomini Hall,” the plantation of Robert Carter III.

Another Year is gone! Last New years Day I had not the most remote expectation of being now here in Virginia! Perhaps by the next I shall have made a longer and more important Remove, from this to the World of Spirits!

It is well worth the while, for the better improving of our time to come to recollect and reflect upon the Time which we have spent; The Season seems to require it; it will give entertainment at least, perhaps much substantial pleasure too, to be able to make with a considerable degree of certainty a review of the general course of our Actions in the course of a year. This shall be my employment, so far as I am able to recollect, when I shall have suitable time for the fixing & laying my thoughts together–

In the mean time I observe that the Day is most pleasant, the wind is West, not fresh; the air is void of clouds, but near the Earth is smoky; the Ground is clear of Frost and setled, what can be finer? Mr. Carter Miss Prissy and myself were to have rode out for an Exercise at twelve, but we were prevented by the coming of a Gentleman, Dr. Fantleroy, to whom Mr. Carter introduced me–

After Dinner was finished which was about four o-Clock, Miss Prissy & Myself, together with a Servant (for Mr. Carter would not trust us alone he said) rode on Horse-Back to Mr. Turbuvilles, about three quarters of a Mile distance; It is the first time I have been there, the House is near, & in Sight, and the families intimate. I rode my Horse for the first time since his misfortune. When we returned about Candlelight, we found Mrs. Carter in the yard seeing to the Roosting of her Poultry; and the Colonel in the Parlour tuning his Guitar.

Nostalgia (Or the Lack Thereof) on New Year’s Eve

As some of my readers know, I am interested in the history of nostalgia. I have often thought about someday writing a cultural history of homesickness in America.

I spent a lot of time writing about homesickness in The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Philip Vickers Fithian succumbed to this disease multiple times during his short life. Nostalgia, of course, is only possible in a modern society–a society that is constantly moving forward. Progress often leads to longings–sometime painful longings–for worlds that have been lost. Fithian experienced this kind of nostalgia as he traveled on what I have called his “way of improvement.”

Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert has a short op-ed in today New York Times on nostalgia. Here it is:

TONIGHT, millions of Americans will raise a glass, sing the only three Scottish words they know and remember the past with an ineffable blend of sadness and delight. Nostalgia has all the hallmarks of a universal emotion, and it is only natural to assume that the yearning for “auld lang syne” that was shared by our grandparents will someday be shared by our grandchildren.

But maybe we’ve reached nostalgia’s end. “Nostalgia” — made up of the Greek roots for “suffering” and “return” — is literally a longing for the places of one’s past. And lately, it has become harder and harder to find things to miss about America’s places.

Downtowns were once collections of local businesses that lured us with claims of uniqueness: “Try our homemade pies,” their signs read, or “Best jazz selection in town.” Today, those signs have been replaced by familiar corporate logos that make precisely the opposite claim, promising us the same goods arranged in the same way as they are in every other place. The banks and burritos and baristas on one city block are replicated on the next — and in all the malls, in all the cities, in all the states. Americans can drive from one ocean to the other, stopping every day for the same hamburger and every evening at the same hotel. Traveling in a straight line is no longer much different than traveling in a circle.

When the industrial smoothing of our nation’s once-variegated edges has been fully accomplished, Americans may no longer need to gather at midnight on the last day of the year to yearn for their yesterdays, because wherever they are they will see the landscapes of their youths.

When they remember the Starbucks where they met the one they married or the Gap where they lost the one they didn’t, they will be marinating in memories that happened everywhere but not somewhere, reliving experiences that are located in time but dislocated in space. And when they return to the places where they grew up, or went to school, or fell in love, they may not even notice that the Old Navy has been replaced by an Abercrombie, the Fridays by an Olive Garden and the once-fleeting past by an endless present.

Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered. So tonight let us revel in our nostalgia, and long for the days when longing was easy.

Anyone Going to the AHA? A Call for Correspondents

The annual meeting of the American Historical Association will be held January 7-10 in San Diego. I will not be going this year, but I want to cover the conference on the blog.

I am looking for readers of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” who are going to the conference and might be interested in serving as “correspondents.” I can’t pay anything, but I can promise the fame associated with your words and by-line appearing on this blog!

If you are interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu or else just send me a post about the conference if the spirit moves you to write one. (If you want to remain anonymous just let me know).

I am particularly interested in posts related to the themes of this blog–early American history, American religious history, religion and politics, the teaching of history, and the historical profession (including war stories from the job market).

Thanks for considering this.

John

$21.33 for The Way of Improvement Leads Home!

If you not yet purchased your copy of the award-winning The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Amazon is selling the paperback edition at an all-time low price of $21.33. (It is also eligible for free shipping!).

This deal is too hard to pass up! Get your copy now!

When I checked the site today, I also noticed that we had four reviews! If you have read the book and feel led to write a short review on Amazon, I will be forever in your debt!

OK–the blatant self-promotion is now over. I promise my next post will have nothing to do with The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Philip Vickers Fithian! Thank for your patience.

A Nice Plug from the David Library of the American Revolution

Patrick Spero, the historian at the David Library of the American Revolution, mentions a nice note from one of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Maria Fisher came to my book talk and signing at the library last summer and wrote to the DLAR with this comment:

Last summer there was a lecture at the David Library featuring John Fea and his book, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” It was not as well attended as some of the other lectures maybe because it was held in July. I just wanted to recommend this book for those who may have missed out. It’s about Philip Vickers Fithian’s life and rural enlightenment in Early America. One gets the sense of how radical and important the changes were in that period of history through the life and mind of an ordinary man. In addition, it’s a beautiful story. It comes at a perfect time as many Americans seem to be losing touch with what makes us uniquely American.

Thanks to Maria for the comment and to Patrick for posting it to the DLAR blog.

Connect With This Blog! Contribute to This Blog!

If you like what we are doing here at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” let me suggest some ways you can contribute to or connect with this blog:

1). Become a follower. See the “followers” section on the left-hand side of the blog. So far we have sixteen and counting! This requires no commitment on your part.

2). Join the “Philip Vickers Fithian Fan Club” on Facebook

3). Send us a picture for our ongoing “Places” feature. It could be an exotic locale or just a shot of a local place. We at the “Way of Improvement Leads Home,” like our patron saint Philip Vickers Fithian, are committed to “places” and those “little platoons” that provide meaning in our lives.

4). If you are or were a history major, we want to hear from you! How are you using your degree? How is your training in history helping you do what you do today? We need more contributors to our ongoing “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series.

5). Post a comment on the blog. Don’t be shy! We want to hear what you think–just keep it civil.

6). (WARNING: Get ready for blatant marketing pitch and self-promotion!). Buy a copy of the multiple award-winning The Way of Improvement Leads Home. The book might help you better grasp some of the posts on this blog. It is also a good read and makes a good holiday gift for the history buff or any other buff in your life! If you buy it on-line, consider posting a short review on Amazon or Barnes and Noble to spread the word.

The Cosmopolitan Predicament

In the writing of The Way of Improvement Leads Home I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about cosmopolitanism. I wondered what it meant in the eighteenth-century to be a “citizen of the world.” For those of you have read the book, you know that I try to unpack the tensions in Philip Vickers Fithian’s life between cosmopolitan dreams and a love of home. I concluded that Fithian represented a “cosmopolitan rootedness” (which, I argue, is slightly different than the “rooted cosmopolitanism” often promoted by those who write about cosmopolitanism today). In other words, his ambition to be a member of a larger “republic of letters” could only be understood through his deep and abiding commitment to the rural, agricultural, and Presbyterian world of a place in southern New Jersey which he called “Cohansie.”

With all of this in mind, I have been having fun working through the most recent issue of the Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture. The theme is “The Cosmopolitan Predicament.” When I received the issue in the mail I began reading from the back. Anyone interested in knowing more about cosmopolitanism should start with Jeffrey S. Dill’s excellent bibliographical essay. He divides recent works on cosmopolitanism into six helpful categories: “Introductions and Historical Overviews,” “The History of Cosmopolitanism,” “Political and Legal Cosmopolitanism,” “Cultural and Ethical Cosmopolitanism,” ‘Empirical Investigations: ‘Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism’,” and “Cosmopolitan Critics.”

Next I plan to tackle Anthony S. Smith’s “Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism” and an interview with cosmopolitanism studies guru Kwame Anthony Appiah.

For those commentators on this blog who have called me a liberal, you might be surprised to learn that one of my favorite quotes on world citizenship comes from Edmund Burke:

“…to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in a series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

I think Philip Vickers Fithian would agree.

Is Religion the Only Source of Morality?

Is religion the only the source of morality? Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century divine and one of early America’s foremost moral thinkers, answered “yes” to this question in Nature of True Virtue. Mark D. Hauser, a professor of evolutionary psychology and biology at Harvard, says “no” in an article at the website of the Edge Foundation. In “It Seems Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality,” Hauser begins by offering three reasons why religion does not equal morality:

First, if religion represents the source of moral understanding, then those lacking a religious education are morally lost, adrift in a sea of sinful temptation. Those with a religious education not only chart a steady course, guided by the cliched moral compass but they know why some actions are morally virtuous and others are morally abhorrent.

Second, perhaps everyone has a standard engine for working out what is morally right or wrong but those with a religious background have extra accessories that refine our actions, fuelling altruism and fending off harms to others.

Third, while religion certainly does provide moral inspiration, not all of its recommendations are morally laudatory. Though we can all applaud those religions that teach compassion, forgiveness and genuine altruism, we can also express disgust and moral outrage at those religions that promote ethnic cleansing, often by praising those willing to commit suicide for the good of the religious “team”.

Hauser then describes a better source of morality:

Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

It is not my intention here to decide whether or not Hauser’s thesis is right. As a historian, I am more interested in how Hauser’s argument reflects much of the Enlightenment-based moral philosophy of the eighteenth century. There is nothing new under the sun. Scottish moralists like Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid argued that morality stemmed from the “moral sense.” In the tradition of Enlightenment universalism, the moral sense was something that all human beings possessed. While Hauser says that this ethical compass was endowed by nature, many of the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment argued that it came from God. In other words, like many of the deists of the day, these moralists believed that God created human beings with a moral sense that helped them to make right, rather than wrong, choices in their lives.

I am not an evolutionary psychologist, so perhaps I am oversimplifying all of this (I probably am), but as I read Hauser’s piece I could not help but think of these Scottish moral philosophers. In fact, I wrote extensively about this view of morality in The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Philip Vickers Fithian, John Witherspoon, and most early American Presbyterians had all embraced a view of private and public virtue informed more by the universal moral sense than their deeply held religious beliefs.

The idea that morality does not come from religion has been around for a long time.

Lecture at the University of Richmond

Last night I was at the University of Richmond where I gave a lecture on Philip Vickers Fithian to the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. The University of Richmond is a beautiful campus. Since I got there early I was able to stroll around a bit.

The crowd at the lecture was very knowledgeable and curious about Fithian and what I have been calling the “Presbyterian Rebellion.” I even managed to sell a few books during the signing period after the lecture.

I also experienced “a first” last night. The Q&A session following the lecture had to be cut short because a seventy-eight year old man in the audience fainted! It was VERY warm in the room (I was sweating through the entire lecture) and this gentleman was simply overcome by the heat. Fortunately, there was a doctor in attendance and after a few minutes the man was fine.

Thanks to Bruce Venter for inviting me to speak and Bill Welsch, a fellow native New Jerseyan, for helping me find my way to Route 95 following the lecture.

Readers Respond to the Way of Improvement Leads Home

Maria, a reader who came to a book talk at the David Library of the American Revolution, writes:

What a pleasure to learn about this small segment of the world. In my opinion, your book is definitely best-seller material. Your writing style is magnificent! The research you did and the way you presented it was a page-turner. I can’t wait for the next one. I think your book is really for a far-reaching audience and not just for history buffs. Most history books have to be read a segment at a time but yours is so uplifting, inspiring and necessary for modern society. It actually made me suffer with the “nostalgia” disease you were talking about in the book.

Dr. Jonathan Den Hartog, an early American history professor in Minnesota who recently taught The Way of Improvement Leads Home writes:

I teach at a 4-year liberal arts college with a religious background in Minnesota. One of my recurring duties is teaching the “U.S. History to 1877” survey. These survey classes usually have 20-30 students. This semester, the class is 25 students strong. Most of the students are freshmen and sophomores.

I always assign several monographs, to introduce students to in-depth historical description and to expose them to academic historical writing. I am very choosy in selecting these monographs. For an introductory class, I prefer monographs that are well-written, engaging, and deal more with individual people than amorphous social developments. When I learned that John had just published The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I decided to give it a try with the class. The book definitely meets my criteria. I was much impressed with the way it works as a contextual biography. Although focused on Philip Vickers Fithian, the book sets him in intellectual, political, and religious contexts to create a thick description of the late colonial and revolutionary periods.

I devoted an entire 100-minute class to discussing the book. We had no difficulties in filling this time. Students responded very well to the book, and conversation flowed well. In fact, it was probably one of the most memorable and lively conversations we’ve had all semester.

Several topics really engaged students:
1. The relationship of Philip and Betsy. They found those sections very well-written, and the characters were dramatically alive to the students. The prevailing sentiment was not to understand why Philip kept after Betsy for so long (or why she ultimately yielded). Although the students wanted to read contemporary dating practices into the 18th century, the book provided an excellent foil to show how courtship expectations and practices differed dramatically 200 years ago. It provided a “teachable moment” about historical change.

2. The intersection of Presbyterianism and republicanism in the Revolution. This allowed us to discuss again how Protestantism intersected with political ideology in promoting the American Revolution. We are simultaneously reading Marsden, Noll, and Hatch’s Search for Christian America, so the material in Way of Improvement helped deepen and extend our conversation.

3. The “rural enlightenment.” Having already discussed “Enlightenments in America,” these passages allowed us to see how enlightened cosmopolitanism might intersect with local settings like Cohansey, New Jersey. One student was particularly enthralled with the idea of “exhorting societies.”

….the book was a success. A good endorsement of the book came from a student who is also taking my “American Religious History” class. He observed the book could profitably have been used for either class. I think he’s right. I could also see the book working well in a “Colonial America,” “Atlantic Worlds,” “American Revolution,” or “American Intellectual History” class. The book is definitely accessible to undergraduates of all levels, so I would strongly recommend that professors looking for course adoptions strongly consider The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

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.”

Cape May County Library

I spent the afternoon in Cape May, New Jersey where I was part of an author’s roundtable at the Cape May County Library. The panel included an eclectic group of authors, including a writer who specializes in poems about love, a photographer who worked on a book about Holocaust survivors in South Jersey, and an English teacher who wrote a novel about the leader of a New Jersey rock band whose mother murdered a former Nazi.

And then there was me and Philip Vickers Fithian!