Friday, January 14, 2011

Reading Bill Bryson's At Home: The Introduction


Bryson’s introduction sets the scene for us. The study revolves around his “Old Rectory” Victorian home in Norfolk, England, and Bryson’s goal is to develop a deeper understanding of his immediate surroundings through a “painfully selective” object study of his home (5). Despite my initial reservations, Bryson’s introduction resulted in my thinking more charitably about his work. It starts off by recounting a provocative suggestion made by a local archaeologist that the local church appears to be sinking because the land surrounding it is actually rising thanks to the displacement it has experiences due to the thousands of burials it has seen over the years.


It seems plausible. Maybe the archaeologist (Tyler) has some insight into that.

I was most satisfied with Bryson’s conclusion that his study specifically—and studies of domestic life more generally—is not only about “sofas and chests of drawers” but that it is also about “scurvy…and the Eiffel Tower…and just about everything else that has ever happened” (5). In other words, this is not the study of an antiquarian but of a social historian. (That’s not to say that such a study couldn’t benefit from an antiquarian’s or connoisseur’s touch.) As such, Bryson seeks to explore the history (from about 150 years ago to today) of mundane facts of life ranging from cleanliness to foodways. Thanks to my interest in everyday life and cleanliness, health, labor, and the body in particular, I am familiar with many of the scholarly works that have been published on these topics.1 Does Bryson offer new insights?

As this agenda suggests, although Bryson’s study evolves around his own “private” home, many of these issues have very public implications. The material conditions under which one “uses the restroom,” for example, are in part dictated by ideas and practices related to public health. Despite the titular emphasis on the private, however, from what I can tell by surveying the illustrations (none of his home) and from Bryson’s comment that he and his house are real but that he will not identify the actual location of the home, Bryson’s home inspires questions but does not appear visually as primary material evidence. Although Bryson is inspired by objects, his engagement with the objects may not satisfy the traditionally trained material culturalist/connoisseur who values both close object study and social historical interpretations.

Regardless, I look forward learning more about his interpretation of the history of private life and seeing what he can add to a growingly vibrant discussion.


1. See, for example, Kathleen M. Brown, ,Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, c2009), Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett, At Home: The American Family, 1750-1870 (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989), Katherine C. Grier’s Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery (Rochester, N.Y.: Strong Museum; Amherst, Mass.: Distributed by the University of Massachusetts Press, c1988), John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (New York: Hill & Wang, c1990), Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), and more.


Unlike Nicole, I welcomed Bill Bryson’s most recent book with open arms. I’ve read him before, found his books interesting and funny, and even heard him speak once. I am not worried about Bryson’s traipsing over my own academic territory; his subject is, after all, far broader than I care to tackle any time soon.

As Nicole alluded to, the archaeologist in me appreciates Bryson’s immediate insertion of our earthbound material record. I don’t know whether his church is sinking or the earth is rising. But having pulled prehistoric stone tools from the dirt of the Ohio Valley and nineteenth-century clay pipes from the mud of the Thames, I am firmly convinced that humans have left a lasting and readable mark on just about every patch of soil ever inhabited. I’ll be interested to see if Bryson employs this resource to its full potential in his study.

I am not so much concerned that Bryson offers new insights as I am with the interpretive potential of his book. I do not expect him to introduce any paradigm-shifting epiphanies into the field of material culture studies. But perhaps he can do what many academics fail to and make our field of study accessible to a broader audience. As he states with more than a little foreshadowing in his introduction, “it is always quite thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before” (1).

Bryson’s goal will be to entertain and inform his (lay) reader, and what better way to do so than through using a recognizable and tangible framework, the Euro-American “home”? His own house will be a springboard from which to launch into the wider universe of material culture, one with which his readers can identify. I don’t expect him to be an expert scholar, but rather to exercise his own expertise in consolidating and synthesizing information on behalf of readers beyond the field. For me, this will be the gauge of the book’s success. So I’ll be watching Bryson closely. Unlike his previous writings on linguistics, hiking, or the universe, this will be a subject I’ve really read up on. And whether he’s traipsing through a churchyard or academic library, he had better tread carefully.

Up Next: Stayed Tuned! I will announce the next reading soon.

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