Friday, April 18, 2008

Peoples of a Spacious Land

In Peoples of a Spacious Land, Gloria Main summarizes the historiography of the 17th-century New England family from the 1980s to the present. In general, she is attempting to provide a broad overview rather than make strong, original arguments. Where she does argue, Main supports those authors who have challenged the idea that Puritans were stern patriarchs, preferring to portray the Puritan family in New England as loving, cooperative, and resourceful in the face of unexpected challenges. Rather than a well-organized colony dominated by a powerful elite, Main emphasizes the improvised nature of New England’s development as residents responded to local environmental, political, and economic situations.
Main supplements her summary with readings from the diaries of leading men such as Samuel Sewall, Cotton Mather, and John Winthrop, as well as those of some lesser-known colonists. Main does not attempt to analyze these sources in depth — rather, she uses them to illustrate the arguments made by other historians.
I do not wish to imply that this book is without merit. In fact, it is very useful because it condenses the arguments made by Ulrich, Thompson, Fischer, Allen, Demos, Cronon, Anderson, Bailyn, and many others (including anthropologists/archaeologists who have studied pre-contact Native Americans) into a readable overview. This would be an excellent text to use as an introduction to New England history because it touches on so many of the debates in the realms of environmental, economic, and family history (it is noticeably light on religion and politics).
My major criticism of Peoples of a Spacious Land is that the promise implied by the plural “Peoples” is never realized. Although Main declares that her work “compares English to native ways in order to explore the influence of cultural values,” most discussion of Native Americans seems overly speculative and is not well integrated into the book. At times, Main seems to be struggling to find something to say about any Indian group (at times extrapolating possible features of Narragansett culture by mining scholarship on other groups, including modern natives of Paraguay) just to fit her initial framework. These pieces seem tacked on and are not very useful. She does not really discuss how English observation of Indian habits might have shaped the colonists’ thinking about themselves and their new home and vice versa. Instead, the reader is left to compare the cultural norms of the two groups, but without any meaningful discussion of how they might have interacted in the 17th century.

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