While lecturing about The Way of Improvement Leads Home I am often asked how I first got interested in writing about Philip Vickers Fithian, an eighteenth-century diarist who is virtually unknown to most of those who come to hear me speak.
I usually answer this question by talking about how I was interested in exploring the age of the American Revolution from the perspective of an ordinary farmer. Or, if I am talking to an academic crowd, I explain how Fithian’s diaries reflect something I call “the rural Enlightement.” (Perhaps I will blog about what this phrase means in the near future). Sometimes I will talk about discovering the Fithian diaries in the archives and getting fired up about piecing together his life in a biographical or narrative form. All of these answers are true.
But every now and then someone who knows me and my story wonders just how much autobiography played a part in shaping this book. Let me say for the record that my personal story and life journey to this point had a profound influence on my writing of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. As the child of working class parents and a first-generation college student, I wrestle every day with the same tensions Fithian dealt with–the tensions between middle-class ambitions and working class (or in Fithian’s case agrarian) roots. These are the kinds of tensions that journalist and NPR commentator Alfred Lubrano described in his book Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams. When I began to understand Fithian this way, it was hard to stop writing.
I have talked about Fithian’s story to a variety of audiences this past three months (and am scheduled to speak to a lot more between now and next May), but so far my favorite talk was to a group of 10th graders at Montville Township High School in Montville, NJ. I found this talk so rewarding not because the audience was interested in my book (many of them were forced to listen to me by their teachers who roamed the aisles of the auditorium) or because of the potential of selling a lot of copies at such an event (I sold two copies to teachers). No, what was rewarding, if not moving, about this specific talk was the fact that I am a 1984 graduate of Montville High School. This, in fact, was the first time I had set foot inside the school since the day of my commencement. I was invited by my old AP United States History teacher and spent time catching up with several other teachers–all of whom were now nearing retirement. Most of them were a bit surprised that I had become a college professor and had written a book. (I won’t go into why they may have thought this!!).
As Philip Vickers Fithian has taught me, sometimes one’s “Way of Improvement” really can “Lead Home.”