Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Best Poor Man's Country

This week's 17th century seminar book is actually an 18th century book: The Best Poor Man's Country: A Geographical Study of Early Southeastern Pennsylvania by James T. Lemon (1972). We try to do a week on each British colony that existed during the 17th century, and this week's focus is on Pennsylvania. There are three people in the class, and we generally each read a different book and summarize it. That way, we cast a wider net.

An excerpt from page 123:
In 1800 the functions of towns were much the same as in 1700, as was the orientation of the economy. During the preindustrial era in this rural society, most towns acted as central places for exchanging farm commodities for those of other counties. Yet urbanites contributed their skills to the economic, political, and social organization of the region.

This is the first time my 123 excerpt has been begun at the beginning of a paragraph that was exactly 3 sentences long.

This book has too many problems for me to be enthusiastic about it. Most obviously, Lemon's dismissal of ethnic differences among Pennsylvania's colonists is problematic. I'm willing to concede Lemon's main point, which is that colonists made their own decisions about settlement and agriculture rather than conforming to William Penn's plans (as well as his secondary point about the farmers' market orientation). Still, I think that his celebration of individualism was just as unhelpful as the peasant model he seeks to overturn. At several points, he is forced to acknowledge that it seems strange to speak of pervasive individualism in a region best known for its communitarian groups, but he never offers a satisfactory explanation for how those impulses were complementary/conflicting/compatible.

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