Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Appalachia and Albion

One of the people who's stock has risen during the course of this interminable Democratic primary, I think, is historian David Hackett Fischer.

Which is impressive, since his stock was pretty damn high to begin with.

Let me explain.

David Hackett Fischer is a historian of colonial America. While he is perhaps a bit thick with incidentals and caveats to achieve the popular success of a David McCullough, he is, I think, not only a marvelously interesting historian but an extremely compelling writer. His book Paul Revere's Ride, for example, is just wonderful, and I commend it to all of my Noble Readers simply as enjoyable reading.*

But his most important work is a huge synthesizing work called Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Four-fifths of this book are a tour of four British-American cultures which were primarily responsible for populating the nescient United States. Fischer does marvelous thick descriptions of each of the four cultures -- that of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of the Chesapeake, of the Delaware and the "Backcountry", about which more anon -- discussing their clothing and houses and diet and on and on, including their cultural beliefs about issues such as government and freedom. It's absolutely fabulous.**

But then you get to the final chapter. In the final chapter Fischer argues that these four cultures persist as distinct causative units up through the time of his writing, 1989: for, in other words, well over two centuries. Oh, as time goes on he starts to merge the Chesapeake/Backcountry cultures into a broad "southern" culture and the Massachusetts/Delaware cultures into a broad "northern" one, but he still ascribes an astonishing amount of persistence to these cultures. As an example he goes through the history of American Presidents (through either Reagan or Bush 1, I don't recall) explaining most of them in terms of their ancestral roots in these cultures.

Well, when I first read this book -- over a decade ago -- I thought this was simply nuts. It didn't take anything away from the brilliant first four-fifths of the book, of course. But the notion that these cultures were so persistent struck me as absurd. After all, there have been vast influxes of immigrants for centuries, diluting and transmuting the original cultural traditions, I thought, beyond recognition. Of course Fischer knows this perfectly well, but his explanation -- that the immigrants were absorbed into the seemingly all-powerful original four British folkways -- struck me, at the time, as simply straining credulity to the breaking point. So I put the book down as a fantastic synthesis with a wacky (if highly entertaining) conclusion.

And then this primary season we get these bizarre results out of Appalachia. Including, most recently, the extremely divergent results from last night's primaries in Kentucky and Oregon. As many commentators have noted, Obama doesn't have a problem with working-class whites in general -- he has a problem with working-class whites from Appalachia.

But while I've seen many theories, nothing I've yet seen has given a fully convincing explanation as to why.***

Which leads me back to Fischer's theories on the persistence of Backcountry culture. Is it possible that the culture of the Backcountry immigrants -- from whom, I believe, the white residents of Appalachia who are so opposed to electing an African American come from -- is the explanation for why Obama is so opposed in Kentucky and West Virginia, in stark contrast to his success (even with working-class whites) in Wisconsin and Oregon?

I don't know. This sort of cultural persistence still strikes me, on its face, as a bit absurd. But Appalachia has definitely demonstrated itself to be culturally distinct from economically and socially similar areas elsewhere in the country (not, it must be said, in a way that reflects particularly well on it). Some sort of explanation is clearly called for. So while I'm not yet a full, paid-up passenger on the Fischer Express, I am definitely giving it another look. Since something is going on here.

Is it really possible that the roots of Obama's Appalachian problem lie in distant Albion?

* It's basically a counter-revisionist history: Longfellow made Revere seem important in ways he simply wasn't; the revisionists downplayed him for others such as Dawes; Fischer argues he was important -- but in a different way than you think. -- In fact, every book of Fischer's I've read has been terrific. I should say that I haven't yet read Washington's Crossing -- which looks as narratively compelling as Paul Revere's Ride -- so the reason I'm recommending the latter not the former is not a comment upon Washington's Crossing; I just haven't read it.

** My graduate school advisor is quoted on the back of the book as saying that it's "a splendid achievement", so I suppose you might want to discount my opinion for bias here. (I wouldn't say so -- I disagree with him on plenty of things, after all -- but then, perhaps my not saying so is in fact part of my bias.) Albion's Seed, incidentally, is the source of the marvelous Fischer quote in my side-bar quote file:
The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be.

*** Although some of the more convincing explanations have discussed the history of the region in distinctly (even explicitly) Fischerian terms.

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