WARNING: What follows can get a bit technical.
When I speak about The Way of Improvement Leads Home to academic audiences, I am often asked about the critical theory that informs my work. Ever since I began this project, scholars interested in gender theory want to know why I neglect to engage this rich literature in my book. (It has, without fail, been asked of me every time I have presented before a group of Ph.Ds). For some of these scholars, such a query is code for why I do not spend more time writing about women in the book. More sophisticated scholars chide me for not devoting enough attention to exploring Fithian’s masculinity.
To the first set of historians I try to show how I took every opportunity to explore the lives of the many women in Fithian’s life. I think the material on his relationship with Betsy illustrates these attempts. Yet, in the end, this is a biography of a man. Consequently, Philip drives the narrative. (I have found that this answer is only satisfying to those who do not have a problem with a biography of white male).
When it comes to Fithian’s masculinity, I think my critics (most of them are kind and gentle) probably have a good point. Fithian would make a great study of masculinity in the age of the American Revolution. His faith (Presbyterianism) and his politics (a form of classical republicanism) tended to be dominated by males. A study of Fithian’s life would provide a great opportunity for taking recent theory on the masculine nature of republicanism, Calvinism, and political virtue and connecting it to real life. This would be a nice project for a graduate student looking for a dissertation. It was not, however, the book I chose to write.
As many of you who have read the book will recognize, I was somewhat influenced by recent theory on cosmpolitanism, particularly the writings of those scholars who are sensitive to the limits of world citizenship. I tried to address these concerns near the conclusion of my original essay on Fithian and the “rural Enlightenment” published in 2003 in the Journal of American History.
But perhaps what influenced me most in writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home was the moral criticism of a host of agrarian and environmental writers who have explored the concept of “place” in American culture. The first chapter of my book addresses the work of some of these scholars. I cite Wallace Stegner at one point, but the writer who influenced me most in this regard was Stegner’s student, Wendell Berry. Both Berry’s fiction and non-fiction inform nearly every page of my book. I do not think I ever cite him in a footnote (though I do mention “Jayber Crow” in my acknowledgements), but it was through reading his accounts of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky that I gained a framework for understanding Philip’s connection with Cohansey.
Because of my critique of Enlightenment progress and modernity, some have tried to point to a postmodern impulse in my book. While I did not set out to write an overtly postmodern book, I am willing to accept this read of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Yet when asked by scholars what kind of theory informed my work, I try to stay as simple as possible. It was not post-structualism or gender theory or subalternism or the “public sphere.” No, it was good old-fashioned agrarianism. Does this qualify as a legitimate theory? Who knows. It is not something I lose sleep over.
P.S. The picture above, taken in 2003, is a field that lies adjacent to the Cohansey River. It was probably part of the Fithian farm.