Thursday, February 13, 2014

Choice Review of The Cult of Individualism

Choice, a publication of the American Library Association, publishes 'postcard reviews' for use by academic libraries. The point is to give a quick overview of the book, an idea of the appropriate audience, and a sense of whether the book can be useful to any particular library. I write reviews for Choice and love doing so, even with its limitations in size and purpose. The word limit, for example, prevents grandstanding by a reviewer and forces her or him to aim for a succinct description. Taking to heart the old saw, best expressed by Mark Twain as “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” reviewers are
expected to put time and care into these pieces, not just dash them off.

What I like best, however, is that Choice surprises me each time a book arrives. Each has related to my areas of experience and expertise, certainly, but none has been a book I would likely pick up on my own. I don't have to accept any assignment--if a book is just too awful, I can simply ask to be excused--but I have never had to do so. In each case, I have learned something; in one case, I ended up using the book as a source in a book of my own.

The latest issue of Choice contains its review of that book, The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. It is by an emeritus professor of history at Brooklyn College named Robert Muccigrosso and, for me, it creates a model of what a Choice review should be, a model I hope my own reviews live up to.

Muccigrosso begins by referring to Rodney Dangerfield's "I can't get no respect" as an apt description of my subject, the Scots-Irish "Borderers." He writes:
Despised and derided both in the Old World and the New, these mostly poor and uneducated uprooted Protestants brought with them their anger, a serious distrust of authority, and an abiding sense of the strength of individual endeavor.
That's it, as it should be, in a nutshell. Muccigrosso ends with this:
This book provides a sensible plea to include the Borderer experience more fully into the national heritage for the benefit of all. 
If that ever happens--and happens in small part because of my book--I will be extremely happy.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review of The Cult of Individualism: Partisans Beware

Chip Etier has posted a review of The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. He focuses on one of the underlying reasons I wrote the book and, in an off way, explains the "lapse" that Dave Tabler, in his own review, notes--that I do not really consider the southern "Cavalier" culture, favoring, instead, a look almost exclusively at the "Borderer" culture and what has become its contemporary antithesis, the secular-humanist culture that has arisen from the Quaker and Puritan cultures (these designations come from David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America). In a comment for Tabler's review, I excuse myself by saying that the Cavalier culture was effectively destroyed by the Civil War... which is true, for the most part, but is not the whole of it.

Though many people still do hold a romantic view of Cavalier culture (look at the continuing popularity of Gone With the Wind), its impact today is mainly confined to nostalgia. The destruction of the economic base of that culture, slavery, coupled with the devastation of the war itself, led to a withering of the Cavaliers and an incorporation of their descendants (and their myths) into the resilient Borderers who, after centuries of surviving wars on the Scottish/English border, were hardly fazed (culturally) by more of the same in North America.

Etier writes:
Barlow offers readers an unbiased examination of the root causes of America’s retreat from reason, understanding, and acceptance in dealing with our political adversaries. Too many people have, for too long, taken the easy way out and cast inflammatory remarks across the aisle and turned a cold shoulder towards the opposition. Who is the opposition?
Barlow takes a new look at identifying the contestants. Rather than the more commonly considered North-South divide, he looks at what he considers a neglected force, East-West.
In many ways, we still look at the United States through the fractured (and imperfectly repaired) lens of the Civil War. And we see that war rather simplistically as solely over slavery, that economic engine of the South. But the war was about much more, and many of its other seeds can be found in the distrust toward Quakers and Puritans (and, yes, even Cavaliers) that the Borderers felt from their mass arrival in the seven decades before the Revolution. They weren't welcomed in the colonies. Even during the Revolution, which they supported, they felt themselves relegated to a secondary role, their voices counting for little in the Continental Congress. After that war, many of them felt that exploitation continued; no longer was it coming from the British Crown but from the monied East.

Tabler is right: I should have spent more time dealing with the Cavalier culture. That, however, would have reduced attention to my main, underlying point, that our contemporary political divides stem from a cultural division long ignored, though quite real, a division that goes back to life of the border in Britain and that came to North America through Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland.