Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Rethinking Early America

Over the last 20 years, historians have thought about early America, or colonial America, as the period is more commonly known, in increasingly complex ways. Given the relative lack of written texts for the period, the cultural studies phenomenon has become more popular in the field. I recently read 2 new works in colonial American history and combined, they show the rich new ways that historians are interpreting the era. They both also demonstrate both the potential and downfall of cultural history.

Jon T. Coleman's Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, makes a significant contribution to more than just colonial history. This excellent book should also be read by western historians and environmental historians. Coleman argues that the historical interactions between Europeans and wolves in North America is part of biological competition for space and domination. Americans wanted land for their livestock without competition from any kind of predator, especially wolves. In addition, Europeans had a long history of antipathy toward wolves that they brought over to America, justifying not only killing them, but also torturing them in the process. Coleman discusses the process of wolf killing moving west, from southern New England, to the Northeastern Woodlands, which he defines as the areas west of the Appalachians but north of the Ohio River, to Mormon Utah, to the federal government killing the last remnants of wolves in the lower 48 during the early twentieth century. Coleman convincingly shows why Americans hated wolves and the cultural reasons for killing them.

Vicious is the first large-scale study of the evolutionary history Dan Flores called for in his influential but often derided article, "Nature's Children: Environmental History as Human Natural History," where he argued for human history to be considered in an evolutionary context. Coleman does this, arguing that Europeans' desire to kill wolves was largely evolutionary in nature, though with specific cultural connotations that Native Americans did not have, such as torturing wolves before killing them. But how do you prove such a claim? Historians can make the claim that humans are hard-wired to act in certain ways but that is both empirically questionable and politically dangerous--if we are hard-wired to kill wolves, shouldn't the federal government then not protect the predators?

One of Coleman's more interesting points is the importance of the sounds wolves made and how that struck fear into the hearts of colonialists and frontier settlers. Interestingly, the history of sound in America is a growing field. Richard Cullen Rath's How Early America Sounded is an interesting addition to this literature. Rath argues that since early America was an aural and oral rather than written culture, historians need to uncover the history of sound to gain a greater understanding of the period. Rath demonstrates the connections 17th century European-Americans made between sound and civil society. For instance, early communities were designed to keep all homes within earshot of church bells. This both kept the church center to society, kept people within control of civil authorities, and made sure people were safe. Sounds also had much greater divine power 350 years ago--thunder was believed to kill rather than lightning and was a sign from gods for all 3 major colonial American groups--Europeans, Indians, and Africans. Nonlingusitic verbal communication was also a concern for colonial Americans--Quaker services and the rants of religious extremists frightened people who lived on a frontier and needed to maintain civil order.

The greatest weakness of this book is not the questionable empirical evidence--again, how do you prove what people thought about sounds?--but rather the use of too much theory over more common sense evidence. In considering why European-Americans ideas about sound changed in the 18th century, Rath draws on theorists as diverse as Jurgen Habermas, Benedict Anderson, and Marshall McLuhan, to say that the rise of a print-based culture and public sphere made sounds have less meaning for colonists. Another way to put this that would draw less on theory would be to say that the Enlightenment began, people began to take an interest in science, and the idea that thunder was a direct sign from God became more discredited. But Rath never directly discusses the Enlightenment and this weakens his book significantly.

Both Vicious and How Early America Sounded are interesting contributions to the history of colonial America and the history of sound. Both books are on the edges of historical writing today and should be applauded for the risks they take. By understanding how humans act within an evolutionary framework, how they relate to animals, and how they comprehend sound, Coleman and Rath have gone a long way to increasing our understanding of colonial America. Coleman and Rath are some of the most imaginative historians working in the field today. I do recommend both of these books strongly, particularly Vicious. But let me challenge these works a bit. Are these ways of understanding colonial history really as satisfying as classic books in colonial history such as the work of Perry Miller, the social history of New England from the 70s, or Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom? For the New Cultural History to revolutionize how we think about the past, historians need to produce books as convincing and satisfying as Morgan or Miller. Then we will know that cultural history is vital for our understanding of the past.