Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Way We Were




It's been a while since we had a reading group discussion.  Rick and I thought it would be fun to read Alan Taylor's American Colonies given the renewed interest by National Geographic in the Pilgrims' story.  Taylor offers a broad history of colonization in America from the early Spanish consequences to the settlements along the West Coast in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  The arrival of the Pilgrims is told in Chapter 9:  Puritans and Natives. 

Here's a review of the book from the New York Times.  We welcome all readers and look forward to an engaging discussion.

48 comments:

  1. I have read the first four chapters--about to begin Canada and the Iroquoia--and find Taylor at times somewhat repetitive. He tends to belabor his points. Despite that, the book is fascinating and detailed. I'm learning stuff I didn't know I didn't know.

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  2. Looks like I have some catching up to do.

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    1. No rush. I'm also reading Richard Hofstadter's "Paranoid Style in American Politics" an Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars."

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    2. Hofstadter's books don't seem to lose their relevance.

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  3. I read the introduction and first chapter last night. Always been curious how the Meso-Americans were first to develop a rich culture, since it is generally agreed that the migration of natives in the American continents went from North to South. I guess they were the first to settle down and develop horticulture, but Taylor doesn't say much about it, focusing instead on the Pueblo and Mound Builders of North America.

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    1. Having read Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel," I don't think there's a whole lot of consensus as to why different groups develop in different ways. Things like climate and terrain are obviously important, as is the development of writing, but they don't explain everything. This is no doubt why some have concluded that more advanced beings from other planets may have had a hand in this. In my view, chance always has and always will play a huge role in just about everything.

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  4. I think it was Boorstin in The Discoverers who wrote what a religious crackpot Columbus was. At one point he was looking for the nipple of Mary, a fountain that rose up from the Gulf where fresh water spouted from its apex. When his ship came across the outflow of the Orinoco River, he believed he had found it. He was completely deluded in his beliefs.

    What the Spanish did to the Guanche was devastating, as was all the disease and mistreatment they inflicted upon the native population. Impossible to say the death toll but it had to have been staggering. I thought the Mexican film, Cabeza de Vaca, did a very good job of capturing the tragedy and sorrow of that time.

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  5. The role microbes and disease played in depopulating the Americas of their indigenous peoples is truly astounding. But disease in the colonies was an equal opportunity scourge.

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  6. I requested a copy of the book and hope to have it by next Tuesday Dec 15th when the bookmobile comes around. I sure miss our many great exchanges and have often thought of Bob Whelan. There were a lot of fine people in our discussions.

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  7. Trip, you can read the book through the link I provided in "American Colonies." Scroll down to the table of contents and virtually everyone of the links has a full screen preview.

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  8. Not really, Rick, as Taylor pointed out. The native population had no natural immunities, whereas the settlers did have them against most of the diseases. It is staggering that the native population declined by 90 per cent over a century. The settlers quickly learned how to use this to their advantage.

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    1. As you continue reading you will find that during the early part of the seventeenth century the death rate for colonists was staggeringly high. Regarding Virginia, for example, Taylor notes that "between 1607 and 1622 the Virginia Company transported some 10,000 people to the colony, but only 20 percent were still alive there in 1622" (130). Some of those deaths were no doubt attributable to starvation; nonetheless, disease, particularly in the southern colonies, was widespread.

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    2. True of individual settlements. Jamestown was a squalid nightmare of their own making. But, overall, the settlers fared much better than the natives.

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    3. No question. I wasn't familiar with how high the death rate was for colonists in places like Virginia and the Chesapeake. The level of desperation that drove them across the Atlantic is difficult for me to fathom.

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    4. Lure of unseen riches it seems. Most were probably low-lifes who had no where else to go.

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  9. His chapter on the Pueblo Indians was a bit of a mish-mash, leaping back and forth in time with no clear narrative, except to cite all the grievances that eventually resulted in the Pueblo Revolt. He is trying to cover huge swathes of history in relatively short chapters. I assume his main thrust will be the European Colonists and Empires in the later sections.

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  10. Am now on to New England and reading about the Puritans and their perceived need to criminalize immorality lest they provoke God's wrath. Per Taylor: "The most sensational cases involved male sex with animals. In 1642 the New Haven authorities suspected George Spencer of bestiality when a sow bore a piglet that carried his resemblance. He confessed and they hanged both Spencer and the unfortunate sow" (181). "Th-th-th-that's all folks!"

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    1. I remember reading that one before. It seems that before Darwin, there were all kinds of interesting theories about men and animals.

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  11. Going back to the Anasazi and their relation to the Pueblo Indians, Taylor missed a key link. Like Tenochtitlan, Chaco Canyon was the center of a vast satellite network of villages. The Hopi mesas and Taos both date back to the Anasazi era, as I imagine does Acoma and Zuni. They all probably would have paid tribute to the Chacoans. A severe drought hit the region in the 13th century, bringing an end to Chaco and other large scale settlements like Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly. This was a pretty complex culture, relying almost exclusively on oral history. So, it is hard to dig very deep as an historian, who usually prefers written records. But, archaeological work is slowly showing how much these Pueblos were tied together in a vast cultural and economic union.

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  12. Are you waiting for us to catch up to you, Rick? I finished the Puritans. It was interesting how Taylor contrasted the approach of the Puritans to their fellow Englishmen in Chesapeake Bay. You begin to understand where this "Yankee work ethic" came from. It was certainly lacking in the south.

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    1. I've paused at the start of chapter twelve, "The Middle Colonies."

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  13. I finished the chapter on Barbados and Jamaica. What a hell hole Barbados was. I think it was Diamond who described similar conditions on the bird guano islands off the coast of South America. The death rate was staggering. Really gives one an entirely different concept of the idea of sugar. I think it was early in the 18th century that Europeans discovered beet sugar and pretty much ended the Atlantic sugar trade.

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  14. One of this book's weaknesses, if I can call it that, is that it tells pretty much the same story over and over again: death and destruction by a thousand cuts. Of course, that's not the author's fault. He can only report the facts, and they are about as ugly as can be. It isn't until the few pages devoted to Pennsylvania that the catalog of horrors abates somewhat. Now I'm on to Part Three: Empires. Not sure what exactly he will highlight.

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  15. Yea, there is a sadly repetitive quality to it without shedding much light on the participants other than to say they were driven by religious and profit-seeking motives. Surely, there had to be some bright moments, or at least some misgivings. But, oddly enough he talks very little about the Quakers, although I haven't gotten to the Pennsylvania part yet, or other attempts to reach out to the natives. His chapter on the Puritans was probably his best so far, as he did try to provide a rounder portrait, showing their attempt to create a more egalitarian society, at least as far as white persons were concerned. The Indian towns were interesting, but here again he didn't say much about them other than being a way for the Puritans to evangelize the natives.

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  16. Bad news ~ the Bookmobile did not come on Tuesday as planned due to a mechanical breakdown. What's worse is that I had an eye exam that morning and the doctor tells me there is something wrong that must be looked at by a specialist. Am still awaiting word as to when our appointment is to take place.

    The eye examiner told me not to get too worried but I had to tell her my dad's side of the family has a long history of cataracts and near blindness. That's why I am worried and doubt if I can join in the discussion.

    But we shall see what happens next ...

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    1. My father's side of the family sounds just like yours. If I live into my eighties there's a good chance I will have fairly poor eyesight. But maybe I'll be an exception.

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    2. I think everyone's eyesight degrades after a certain point. But, these days they can correct cataracts pretty easily.

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    3. You're right. Only trouble is they don't stay corrected. And then there's something called macular degeneration which required my father to place himself within about 12 inches of his television screen if he wanted to "watch" the Giants play the Patriots. When I suggested he might just as well listen to a radio broadcast, his was response was, "I'm clinically blind but for three hours on a Sunday afternoon I like to pretend I'm not." He was 88 at the time and live three more years. Couldn't even read large print books. Maybe cataract surgery will have improved by the time I need it.

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    4. Well, I finally got the results of the extended eye exams - while there are some irregularities, there is no evidence of macular degeneration (at least not yet). Therefore, I will not need surgery but must continue to do eye exercises and self care. Hopefully, some day my limited insurance will cover for new reading glasses.

      Mebbe some day I'll be able to actually read a book rather than use recorded books.

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    5. I plunked down 100 euros for +1 reading glasses after a 50 euro eye exam, only to find a could buy +1 reading glasses from the local super market for 10 euros. I could have even tried on a range of glasses to see what I needed. Boy, did I feel stupid!

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    6. Just noticed this post and recommend you visit Zenni online. Great place to buy glasses. After a recent eye exam I was told the frame-less glasses I wanted would cost $400, and that didn't include the lenses, if I bought them from the shop associated with my eye doctor. Got what I wanted from Zenni for $35 and they arrived within a week.

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  17. Hopefully, nothing too serious Trip. As for the book. Go up to the post, the link will take you to it. I believe the entire copy is available through google books.

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  18. I'm still reading but have also begun Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello." It is a beautifully made book that I picked up at a sale for one dollar.

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    1. A lot of the books I buy are usually one pence plus shipping, or about 4 pounds. I will splurge on the occasional first edition, first printing, as long as it isn't more than 15 pounds, but even here I usually find some pretty good deals. Anyway, it most be tough on the publishing houses.

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  19. I have to admit this book is a bit of a slog. What's lacking are personal stories. Taylor paints the early colonial scene with a very broad brush, touching on a great number of issues but not filling in with very much detail. I wonder if he should have just confined himself to the British colonial experience and expanded upon it, as this seems to be his strong suit. He could have looked at each colony in turn.

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    1. I must agree that he rarely puts a face on any of this and assume it has something to do with this Penguin American history series.

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    2. Foner, who is the editor of the series, is very good about capturing the personal side of history. Greatly enjoyed his book on Reconstruction. But, I guess he can't write the whole series.

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    3. His book on Reconstruction sits atop my list of the best history books I've ever read. Mind you, most of my reading is literary, so I'm sure there are some gems I haven't read that might rise to the top in its place.

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  20. I was the member of a book discussion group quite a few years ago. One of our rules was that if you wanted to recommend a book for discussion you had to have already read it. When I suggested Alan Taylor's "American Colonies" I had not read it. Indeed, if Eric Foner hadn't been the general editor of the series I probably wouldn't have bought it. Sorry about that.

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  21. That's OK. There was interesting material, just not very well told. I had been meaning to read it a long time myself.

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  22. One last salvo regarding Taylor's book. I have a copy of Robert Hughes' "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America." This 635 page, profusely illustrated book sold for $65 when it was first published in 1997 by Alfred A. Knopf. Although it might look like a "coffee table" book, it isn't one. The history writing is lively and detailed. And you can buy it online for as little as $5.

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    1. I really enjoy Robert Hughes. Reminds me a little of Bernard De Voto, not afraid to express his opinion.

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  24. Finally got a copy of Taylor ~ enjoyed his book "William Cooper's Town" a few years ago. Sent him an email re a topic he brought up and he answered it. I am always glad to see writers answer their emails though he could not fully answer my question.

    Also glad to see Eric Foner as editor because I greatly respect him. You might recall the interview he did with the NY Times in which 7 people were allowed to send in a question for his consideration. I will never forget how he singled out my query about Congressman Bingham of Ohio and about his significance to American history.

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  25. It will be interesting to read your comments, Trip. I think he just picked too broad a subject and lost control of it.

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    1. Had to send the book back - print was too small for my weak eyes. I need two sets of glasses but medical insurance will cover for only one pair. Decided to forego the reading glasses in favor of distance glasses so I can cross the streets without getting run over by traffic. Will try to get a copy of the audio book and possibly contribute some ideas to this thread. Meanwhile still reading Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" via audio book - funny how at times it reads like a Mack Sennett movie.

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    2. I really liked Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Franz Borkenau's Spanish Cockpit tills the Spanish Civil War from the Madrid lines

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  26. I watched The Revenant last night. A pretty nasty taste of what it was like in the Western territories in the 19th century. A very good visual explanation of what the fur trade was like.

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