My work-study student, Courtney, just dug up a review of The Way of Improvement Leads Home by University of Minnesota early Americanist Russell Menard in History: A Review of New Books. I print it here in full:
John Fea’s biography of Phillip Vickers Fithian is a rare book, one that will appeal both to academic historians specializing in early America and to those whose interest in the field and in history is more casual. Fithian is familiar to students of early America because of a diary he kept during a two-year stint as a tutor on the Robert Carter plantation in eighteenth-century Virginia, a diary that has powerfully shaped scholarly understanding of the Chesapeake gentry. Until now, however, we have known little about the rest of Fithian’s life, even though he kept a diary his whole life. His is a compelling story, and his usually penetrating and often quotable observations illuminate many of the major events and processes in early American history.
Fea has seized the opportunity Fithian’s diaries present to produce an engaging biography that deserves the attention of anyone interested in America’s colonial past. Fea organizes the biography around what he sees as the central tension in Fithian’s life—that between his commitment to the enlightenment ideals of selfimprovement and membership in a cosmopolitan republic of letters and his deep attachment to his home along the Cohansey River in southwestern New Jersey. While tracing this tension, Fea shows how the enlightenment was lived in rural America, explores the complex relationship between enlightenment ideas and evangelical religion, and tells a compelling story of one young man’s relationship to the independence movement.
He also takes us on a fascinating journey through Fithian’s life, beginning with his years as a young agricultural laborer in rural New Jersey, moving on to his college years at Princeton, and then on to the Presbyterian ministry’s missionary tour through the American backcountry. Fea also explores the engaging story of Fithian’s difficult, but ultimately successful, courtship of Elizabeth Beatty and follows Fithian into the Revolutionary War as a chaplain.
If the press brings out a moderately priced paperback edition of this book, I will assign it in my early American history classes, where, paired with Franklin’s Autobiography, it will provide students with some insight into the origins of American culture. Fea makes effective use of Fithian’s diaries, which deserve a wide audience. I hope Fea can be persuaded to publish an edition of substantial selections, so that Fithian can extend our understandingof early America beyond the life of the Virginia gentry.
Although Fithian’s diaries constitute Fea’s major source, the author supplements these with public records from Fithian’s home to produce what at times approaches a community study of the Cohansey River region of New Jersey, and he has read deeply in the available scholarship on eighteenth-century America to contextualize Fithian’s life. In sum, with this charming, nicely written, and thoroughly researched biography of an engaging colonial character, John Fea has provided readers of early American history with a gift to be treasured.
RUSSELL R. MENARD