The idea of “place” in early America is one of the major themes in The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Philip Vickers Fithian was a very mobile and cosmopolitan person for a son of an eighteenth-century farmer, but as he participated in early America’s version of globalization he often lamented the loss of his connections to home. As I argue in the book, Fithian’s ambition led him away from home, but he was also deeply rooted in his neighborhood and sought to cultivate friendships and community that helped him grow in both his faith and what I call his “way of improvement.” The tension between cosmopolitanism and local attachments defined his short life.
With this in mind, I was stuck by two op-ed pieces that appeared today in national newspapers. In the Washington Post Bill McKibbon, in an essay entitled “End of the Open Road,” shows how rising fuel prices are leading to a drop in airline travel, a slight dip in automobile travel, and a potential difficulty in transporting food via trucks and planes. As a result, local farmers markets and seed companies are experiencing a booming business. Yet even as McKibbon clearly sees these trends as positive, he also celebrates certain aspects of globalization that allow us to be cosmopolitan without abandoning our local places. The Internet is his primary illustration of this kind of globalization.
The other article, in today’s New York Times, is Peter Lovenheim’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” Lovenheim not only laments the loss of community in his upstate New York neighborhood, but he has decided to do something about it. As part of his latest book project, he asked eighteen neighbors if he could “sleep over” at their houses and spend the following day with them as they went through their daily routines. He has become a catalyst for real community in this Rochester suburb and is cultivating the kind of social ties that are essential to developing a sense of place.
I think Philip Vickers Fithian would have enjoyed both of these articles. He would have fully understood McKibbon’s attempt to balance a commitment to local communities and economies with the imagined global or cosmopoltian network of ideas, learning, and information that the Internet offers. For him, living in the eighteenth-century, this imagined community was known as the “Republic of Letters” and he practiced his membership in this community from the remote banks of the Cohansey River. He would also relate to Lovenheim’s sleepovers. Fithian often spent the night at the homes of the people who lived on the eighteenth-century Cohansey and in doing so developed deep personal and moral ties with the people of his homeland.