Wednesday, March 28, 2012

At Home, Reading with Friends: Chapters 18-19, The Nursery and the Attic


Bacon or a book? 

While wading through Michael Warner’s The Letters of the Republic, I leaned that in 1760s Williamsburg, for about the same amount of money, I could have purchased Thobias Smollett’s History (of England) or 30 hogs.1  

I turned this proposition over in my mind for several days.  Did colonial-era Williamsburgers even eat bacon? (yep, click here to learn more about bacon in CW)  Would a woman like me have had more need for a lifetime supply of bacon and valuable livestock or several weeks' worth of reading (and possibly a lifetime of "social distinction")?

Just as some books surprise and deceive readers today, dummy boards surprised and deceived viewers in early America.  Dummy board -- Pig Feeding from a Bowl, Great Britain, 1750-1800, oil on wood, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, W.81-1926
I doubt that any historical Williamsburg, VA, woman ever paused to consider such a ridiculous choice.  (The answer is clear: borrow the book and buy the piggies.)  Yet even when some aspects of a book put you off (such as frequent appearances of words like hermeneutics and ontological), good books--like Warner's The Letters of the Republic and Bryson's At Home--give you something to think about. 

Regular readers know that I have given Bill Bryson’s At Home little praise.  I have deemed at least a handful of facts to be false or misleading.  I have questioned why a book that lends itself to good illustration provides little.  And I have lamented that Bryson missed grand interpretative opportunities embodied in the object that inspired the book: his own home.  Is it ironic that a book about private life leaves Bryson’s private life out of the picture entirely?  Perhaps I ask too much.

Despite all this, my disappointment with At Home reinforces my determination to write quality books that will appeal to my historian and public historian colleagues as well as to the general public.  And I did, in fact, learn some new things about material life along the way thanks to Bryson, and he deserves some credit for bringing the concept of historicizing private life to a twenty-first-century Barnes & Noble-browsing audience.

Bacon or Bryson?

Like my imagined 1760s Williamsburg maiden, ultimately, I'd borrow the book and buy the bacon.

1. Michel Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 26.

***And for those of you who are interested in Berlin work (which has been featured periodically on this blog), my article on the topic was recently published in Winterthur Portfolio.  ***


Those of you who have followed our At Home adventure since it began over a year ago and those who have stopped in along the way have probably realized that Nicole and I often played a good cop/bad cop routine. And after finishing the book, I’m still inclined to give it good marks for effort. Did it have errors, missteps, simplifications, and a distinct carelessness in describing how things might have changed across the centuries? Yes. Bryson’s study, already read by countless book groups across America, will probably generate as many new false cocktail conversation factoids as it dispels. Sure, people weren’t really shorter back then, and not that many women actually died from catching their petticoats on fire and early Americans did not select “HL” hinges and “cross and Bible doors” to reflect their piety. But, I suppose, such stories will be told for some time to come whether or not people read At Home. Docents and everyday folks will tell them until they realize that history is too deep, rich, and complex to reduce to quips and quirks. Bryson might not have realized this, but in another way he hit the nail on the head.* At Home was more like following an old docent around an old house on an old tour than he could possibly have dreamed. So for those of us who enjoy a good read and an occasional flaw to expose, it wasn’t a bad read, either.     

*If this were At Home, this footnote would describe the etymology of the phrase. I’ll give Bryson one thing, he likes his words.

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