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  • Cultural Revolutions: Everyday Life and Politics in Britain, North America, and France
  • Marilyn Morris
Cultural Revolutions: Everyday Life and Politics in Britain, North America, and France. By Leora Auslander. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. 256 pp. $50.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

The notion of bourgeois revolution has received a sound drubbing in current scholarship on the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century upheavals in England, America, and France. The participants in these signal events simply did not possess a class-consciousness based on their relation to the means of production or even on a sense of commonality derived from shared patterns of consumption. Nevertheless, Leora Auslander argues, production and consumption did help form the collective identities that made revolution possible. Her examination of these three political conflicts as cultural revolutions provides a framework for understanding how they were interrelated, why they differed, and how the symbolic and emotional resonances of everyday material objects helped shape revolutionary consciousnesses. Auslander characterizes her study as “a book-length essay, intended to provoke further research on the relation of politics and emotion, on material culture, and on the concept of cultural revolution,” relying on the rich scholarship each revolution has generated and presenting a fresh perspective through juxtaposition (p. 12). At the same time, she includes a judicious sampling of the evidence on which the secondary literature draws in well-selected quotations from contemporary writings and illustrations of coinage, medals, seals, dress, accessories, needlework, portraiture, furniture, plate, and a range of common household objects. [End Page 396]

Chapter 2, evocatively titled “Ermine and Buckskins,” compares courtly and colonial society, first setting out how the monarchs of England and France used culture to reinforce their majesty through projections of their power and image in impressive architecture, statuary, landscaping, coinage, ritual, and pageantry. Crown policy and patronage regulated language, manners, and dress in an effort to promote uniformity, subordination, and loyalty. Monarchs lost their cultural hegemony, however, over the course of the same period in which the rise of commerce, religious sectarianism, and political theories questioning the divine right of kings disrupted the social order. Meanwhile, the North American colonies were moving in the opposite direction. While the regional variations, religious pluralism, variety of peoples, customs, and modes of governance made for much diversity, the thirteen colonies gradually gained a sense of cohesion aided by a postal service that linked them from 1710, the emergence of print culture, and an increasing commonality of purpose as they battled first the “Indians” and then the British colonial administration. The presence in the colonies of English, Scots, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Africans, and the need to borrow techniques for effective transportation, agriculture, hunting, and fishing from Native Americans had produced a hybridization of customs and styles in food, dress, music, pottery, furniture, and architecture, which laid the groundwork for a distinctive culture. Auslander concludes that whatever sense of British identity the colonists derived from their colonial status through observance of royal celebratory occasions and their appetite for British fashions, manufactured goods, and books, this hybrid culture provided a readymade American image. Taking up this story in chapter 4, she discusses the importance of promoting homespun fabric and domestic arts during the colonial boycott of British goods, not only helping unite the colonists in a shared sense of economic interest but also in reproducing motifs and symbols and embodying cultural values that became emblematic of the new nation.

Auslander characterizes the English Civil War and Interregnum as an “unfinished revolution.” Her third chapter posits that the central role that religion played in the conflict and the nascent state of commercial society limited political expression to words. As Puritan society featured more prohibitions than innovations, distinct new iconography, cultural forms, and social rituals never rose up to replace court culture. Nor did the destruction wrought by war produce an architectural flowering. Deployment of republican symbols, such as replacing the image of the king with that of the Commons on the Great Seal, only went so far. Oliver Cromwell’s reluctance to assume kingly power then brought [End Page 397] further ambivalence in iconographic representations of sovereignty. In contrast, the French revolutionaries, to whom Auslander turns in chapter 5...


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