Thursday, July 31, 2008


I'm in the midst of Sacvan Bercovitch's American Studies classic, "The Puritan Origins of the American Self," and I was struck by one of Bercovitch's ideas. He suggests that the Puritans sense of self was a "self civil war," which he renames "Auto-Machia," because "it evokes both modern autonomy and medieval psychomania" (19). He then reprints a poem wrtten by George Goodwin in the early 17th century:

I sing my SELF; my Civil Warrs within;
The Victories I howrely lose and win;
The dayly Duel, the continuall Stride,
The Warr that ends not, till I end my life.
And yet, not Mine alone, not onely Mine,
But every-One's that under th' honor'd Signe
Of Christ his Standard, shal his Name enroule,
With holy Vowes of Body and of Soul.

What strikes me is the presence of what one might recognize as characteristics of modern angst (daily duel, endless strife) within a Puritan explanatory context: the coming of a final Judgement, the "signe of Christ." It makes one wonder... which comes first? The explanatory context or the state of mind that is described? Of course it's a chicken and egg question, but interesting in the context of the development of the idea of the autonomous self, which Bercovitch credits (partially) to the Humanists.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Purpose of the Past

A review of Gordon Wood's new book, The Purpose of the Past.

I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it's a welcome reality check for historians, written by a living master. Gordon Wood also wrote "The Creation of the American Republic," THE book on the American constitution and one of the "classics" of history writing in the 20th century.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Supersizing in the 18th Century

It's common knowledge in Europe that Americans have an obsession with size. Americans abroad are constantly pestered with questions about their "big" cars, their "big" meals and their "big" houses. And while other stereotypes are easier to contest (not ALL Americans are stupid/fat/ignorant about the state of the world), it's hard to deny that American stuff does tend to be bigger. The size of the plates, the width of televisions, the ubiquitous "super-size" option at fast food restaurants...even our oranges seem conspicuously larger than normal. Bottom line: there's something to the "size" stereotype.

But if Americans today are known as being too "big" for their own good, Americans in the 18th century faced a different problem. French philosophers had come up with a theory about the inherent degeneracy of the New World: living too long in the "wilderness" of America had the undisputed effect of decreasing ones' size. And the Europeans weren't just talking about "things." No--everything in America was smaller, degenerate and weak: the plants, the animals, even the people. They warned Europeans to stay away.

It's not surprising to learn that Americans resented this talk of smallness. Thomas Jefferson hated it. He responded by conducting a thorough investigation of the natural world in the newly-United States. Jefferson took to the tape measure and calculated the size of rocks, trees, minerals and mountains. And he didn't stop there. In neatly organized tables of comparison, he proved that animals in America were decisively bigger that their European counterparts:

Europe. lb.

America. lb.

Cat7. [88]

Source: Online Library of Liberty

American people (the Native Americans) were also bigger than Europeans supposed. It was undeniable: America was bigger and, implicitly, better.

Jefferson's talk of the inherent "bigness" of things in America did not fall on deaf ears. His compatriots listened and responded. In order to show support for Jefferson's presidential candidacy in 1800, a group of Baptist dairy farmers did what they knew how to do best: they made cheese. But not just a normal block of cheese. They milked 900 cows in one go and created a "mammoth" hunk of cheese that they delivered to Jefferson's doorstep in the dead of winter (it was too heavy to transport over the softer spring soil).

While the cheese itself quickly attracted flies, Jefferson graciously accepted the Baptists' gift and the newly created public press went wild. Soon the mammoth cheese was joined by a "mammoth bread," a "mammoth eater" (a Washingtonian who devoured 42 eggs in 10 minutes) and "mammoth veal." Big things were a point of national pride and new Americans joined in Jefferson's rejection of the Europeans by embracing--and creating--"big" stuff.

It may have served a different purpose, but the mammoth cheese was, in many ways, the forerunner to the supersized meal and BJ's. It distinguished itself not through quality or originality, but by sheer size. And in doing so, it proved the Europeans wrong. America wasn't smaller and weaker, like the French philosophers presumed. It was not only naturally bigger: the American people were also willing to go the extra mile to make their things truly larger than life.