Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia: 1740-1790

Subjects: Chesapeake Colonies, Individualism, Revolution, Social Life.

Employing the tools and techniques of Geertzian ethnography and dramaturgy to full effect, Rhys Isaac's Transformation of Virginia utilizes various set pieces in the history of the Old Dominion to trace the evolution (deterioration?) of Virginia society from a communitarian system of hierarchy, patriarchy and conviviality to an individualistic one based on contractualism, paternalism, and domesticity. Placing special emphasis on the spiritual revolution of the Baptist and Methodist New Lights and the political revolution of the republicans and shirtmen, Isaac examines the performative displays and tableaux vivants that were so integral in the transformation of a primarily oral culture to a written one.

Isaac begins his tome by setting the stage for the events to follow, describing in detail Virginians' impressions of the landscape and the scattered buildings and homes that fill it. He also carefully explores the role of the church in colonists' lives in perpetuating and sanctifying social hierarchy, as well as the many carefully ordered yet convivial opportunities - hospitality, jigs, ordinaries, horse races, cock fights - for socially unequal men to come together in a setting that reinforces the social superiority of the gentry.

From here, Isaac relates several set pieces in Virginia political and religious history that illustrate the slow deterioration of this rigid yet amiable social order, including the proto-unionizing of clergymen, the rise of the Baptist movement, the controversy over establishing an American bishopric, the ecclesiastical feud between Robert Nicolas and Samuel Henry, the explosion of martial sentiment amid the Revolution, and the passage of the Virginia Religious Freedom Act. While consistently enjoyable, I occasionally got the sense in Part II that Isaac was straining to fit his previously published articles into the context of this book, particularly in the chapter about the transactions in the steeple of Bruton. (Although I didn't mind all that much, since these chapters were consistently entertaining and well-written.)

Isaac concludes his work by delineating the contours of the atomized, individualistic, and contractual society left in the wake of the two revolutions. Sounding a McLuhanesque tone, Isaac explores the "intensified impact of a print-oriented cosmopolitanism upon an already weakened localistic oral culture" - less community, conviviality (for white folks), and innate authority among the gentry; more privacy and refinement in the home. He closes by offering a discourse on his ethnographic method, which seems to involve pinpointing the nature and extent of specific human interactions on the requisite "stage" of social geography, and - more importantly - understanding these interactions as performative set pieces with important dramatic meaning in a specifically oral culture.

Cross-posted at http://www.kevincmurphy.com/isaac.html.

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