One of the difficulties of publishing a book with a university press that has appeal to popular audiences is trying to translate some of my academic language into the vernacular of the people who might show up for a book talk at a public library or historical society. For example, when I project the cover of the book before some audiences, I get puzzled looks about the subtitle. I can only imagine what these people are thinking, probably something like: “why would I be interested in reading a book with the phrase ‘rural Enlightenment’ in the subtitle?”
Actually, the concept of “rural Enlightenment” is just a fancy term to describe a community of eighteenth-century rural dwellers who actively tried to better themselves from their remote locales. Fithian and his friends in the South Jersey countryside read books together, studied Latin together, wrote letters to one another, and generally tried to improve one another–intellectually, morally, and spiritually–by fostering community.
When most historians study the way people lived out the values of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment they tend to focus on elite men and women in cities–London, Paris, or Philadelphia come immediately to mind. If you read the writings of these historians you get the impression that “rural” and “Enlightenment” are incompatible terms. As I argue in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, this need not always be the case.