- Practical Americans
Since 2013, when a New York Timesarticle introduced a wider readership to the "new history of capitalism," a great number of books have been published that can be seen as belonging to this capacious project. However, many of the new books' authors hold the label at arm's length. 1Though they offer careful examinations of the practices and transformations long understood to be crucial to capitalist development, they often avoid using the term capitalism, warn readers in a discreet footnote that it "can cause confusion" [End Page 339](Rosenthal, 209 n. 4), employ alternative terminology such as "the emergence of the market economy as an ostensibly self-regulating system" (Sklansky, 12), or posit definitions in articles—but only after their monographs reach publication. 2
By placing theories of capitalism on the back burner, the authors of this new scholarship release themselves from certain responsibilities, such as hashing through generations of theoretical work, arguing fine points of definition, or revisiting places such as the New England town and the Virginia plantation where analyses of American capitalism once sprouted in prodigious numbers. 3Their newfound freedom allows them instead to [End Page 340]roam all over early America, which is now widely understood to be a bigger place and a longer historical epoch than earlier scholars sometimes led us to believe. 4
Notably, the wide-angle lens employed in much of this new scholarship does not leave the details blurry. It takes, in fact, a distinct interest in the everyday, even humdrum practices of American economic life: going to market, buying and selling, calculating and accounting. Emma Hart's Trading Spacesattends closely to "the everyday spaces frequented by ordinary trading Americans" (2) and the "habitual procedures" (6) undertaken there, drawing the conclusion that a distinctly American system of market capitalism emerged generations before the American Revolution. Hart's approach resonates with that of Caitlin Rosenthal, who in Accounting for Slaveryanalyzes the "sophisticated management practices" (2) employed on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century plantations, and also with that of Joshua R. Greenberg, whose Bank Notes and Shinplasterscenters on "daily encounters with bank notes" and Americans' "lived experience with paper money" (3) during the early republic. In these three books, Americans are not defined primarily by their participation in partisan politics or by imperial or national political culture. Nor are they principally defined by regional [End Page 341]identity or by local institutions such as churches or towns, though their ethnic identities occasionally matter and their racial identities almost always do. Early Americans must be understood, these new books suggest, in light of the specific, concrete, routine economic activities that helped them navigate the vast capitalist worlds they inhabited—activities such as attending an auction, filling out an account book, or handling currency. 5
What are the implications of this interest in economic practice across broad expanses of American space and time? A generation ago, employment of the term "practice" and reference to the "habitual" usually signaled an incipient cultural analysis: a conversation, if perhaps at a remove, with scholars such as Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, and Clifford Geertz. For Certeau, "everyday practices" could be apprehended as "systems of operational combination" that amounted to a culture worthy of study for its own sake. 6For Bourdieu, individuals' practices led toward an understanding of their habitus—the elusive totality of their ways of acting and being, their sense of "the way things are and the way I am." 7For Geertz...