Rixey Ruffin in The Journal of American History writes:
The strength of this book is that it succeeds in what it sets out to do; in so intimately linking ideas and behavior, Fea has put a memorable human face on the abstractions of the age.
At another point in the review, Ruffin writes:
The more he embraced reason, the more he wanted to flee from it. Fithian was a walking war zone, a young man who in every way embodied some of the great intellectual struggles of his age.
Fithian as a “walking war zone.” I will have to think about that one.
Ruffin also critiques my work:
And while there are certain challenges in writing a biography of a man who died so young, surely not all of the details provided in this book are essential ones. Fea has an insightful thesis but sometimes comes too close to burying it beneath the minutiae of his subject’s daily life.
Fair enough. There are a lot details about Fithian’s life in this book. My only response is that it is in the minutiae of everyday life that the Enlightenment was lived. My thesis must be embodied in everyday life or else the “rural Enlightenment” thesis does not work. Moreover, it is precisely the biographical details that draw in the average reader. This explains, I think, why The Way of Improvement Leads Home has had some limited cross-over success with general audiences.
Ruffin concludes: But overall, this is an engaging study of a life fully lived even its brevity, a life through which the ideals and fears of the Enlightenment can be witnessed anew.