I have always considered myself part of a school of early American historians who study the Middle Colonies. This is largely because my dissertation advisor was an expert on the region and I wrote part of most of my dissertation in Philadelphia. (It may also have had something to do with the fact that I was born and raised in the New York metropolitan area). But writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home forced me to dig into other regions– plantation Virginia, New England (eastern Long Island and southwestern Connecticut), and the Virginia and Pennsylvania backcountry.
I have always admired early American historians who have not limited their careers to writing about one region. Edmund Morgan, Richard Dunn, Christine Heryman, and T.H. Breen come to mind. After writing my book, I was reminded again that the regions of colonial America were very different, giving me a renewed appreciation for a historian like Dunn who could write about sugar and slaves in the West Indies, William Penn, the Age of Religious Wars, and John Winthrop. (Dunn’s recent project is a comparative study of Chesapeake and Jamaica plantation life). Or Breen, who has written on Virginia, New England, and East Hampton, NY, not to mention his great book on consumerism and the American Revolution.
Trevor Burnard, in “A Passion for the Places,” his July 2008 Common-Place essay, wonders why colonial American historians organize their field by regions while historians of contemporary America think about their field(s) in terms of chronology. (HT to Michael Pasquier for calling my attention to this piece). Here is a brief taste of this excellent essay:
Indeed, what is remarkable about recent developments in early American historiography, notably the rush towards seeing everything in an Atlantic context, is how the geographical focus of the “new social history” has not only been retained but has been enhanced. Indeed, I would argue that Atlantic or borderlands histories (both in themselves geographical terms) are convincing evidence of a longstanding geographical turn in early American history, a more long-lasting and more influential turn than more heralded turns towards theory, towards linguistics, and towards anthropology. If anything defines early American history today, it is its relentless geographical focus. It is space, not time, that dominates our attention.