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The ColonialTown Bruce C.Daniels.Dissent and Conformity on Narragansett Bay: The Colonial Rhode Island Town. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1983. Jessica Kross.The Evolution. of an American Town: ,Vewton, New York, J642-1775.Philadelphia: Temple UniversityPress, 1983. Lvnne Withey.Urban Growth in Colonial Rhode Island: 1 \;ewport and Providence in the Eighteenth Century. Albany: StateUniversity of NewYork Press, 1984. J.M.Sosin In a sharp comment on the parochial view which had long prevailed in writingson early American history, W.T. Root, in reviewing the second volume of Charles McLean Andrews' Guide to Materials for American Histo,y,to 1783 in the Public Record Office, observed in 1915 that the work of Andrews and others in foreign archives was a "sure sign that we are comingto a study of the past with a new vision."1 Too frequently American historianshad been studying their country as if it were somehow unaffected byand unconnected to the main currents of world history. Undoubtedly a reaction had set in, and Root predicted that the work of Andrews would weakenthe old isolation. Indeed, the imperial historians did go on to break downthe parochial view of early America and to portray its institutions and developmentas part of a larger British community. After another half century, however, the wheel had turned again so that, in a study of witchcraft in New England published in 1982, John Demos set forth as the central assumption of recent scholarship on early American societythe primacy of local experience. For him what had shaped the lives of the vast majority of Americans was not the decisions made thousands of milesaway across the ocean by the imperial government in London-these rarely or remotely, if at all, impinged on their existence-or even the enactments of the more proximate colonial governors and provincial legislatures , but rather events in the "little community." Much more important Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 1985,301-305 302 J.M.Sosin than the imperial or provincial was the local scene, the sometimes informal neighborhood where people confronted each other face to face.2 Thiswas the new social history, or history from the bottom up, the history of common people rather than that of great men, or governors and imperial bureaucrats as revealed by their papers and correspondence. Since the mass of menwere mute, leaving few literary remains, the new social history relied heavilyon quantification and imposed upon raw, inarticulate numbers twentieth-century sociological, anthropological and psychological concepts to glean some understanding of a past people and their culture. Theoretical modelsof behavior derived from our own day have been posed as tools of investigation. Still, those who have stressed the primacy of local history have not hadit entirely their own way. Richard R. Johnson in Adjustment to Empire: The New England Colonies 1675-1715 (1981) and Sydney V. James in Colonial Rhode Island: A History (1975) continued to stress the impact of imperial administration on provincial government and the role of the colonial regimes in shaping local communities. At first glance the three books here under review seem to fall into the category of the new social, parochial history. Prominent in this genre during the past fifteen or so years have been books dealing with New England towns, works suggesting an entirely new way of looking at Puritan life in America and early American development. More concerned with ordinary people and everyday life, they do not delve into "the life of the mind," a focus which occupied Perry Miller and other scholars of Puritan New England; instead, the new social histories used a single town or a handful of villages to understand the intricate web of family life and social relations. With what result? As Kross and Withey both note, New England has not proved to beas monolithic as once thought. Hitherto only the idiosyncratic townsmen of Rhode Island had been thought to have established communities which deviated from the NewEngland or Puritan norm. Nowhistorians are confronted with a persistent, frustrating phenomenon: as Withey puts it, all who have written about individual towns are quick to point out that no colony or town can be called typical. An array of books and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 301-305
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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