08 September, 2008

Hugh Brogan's Saga of Settlement

In “The Settlement,” Book I of his overview of American history (see The Penguin History of the USA), Hugh Brogan presents to a presumably gullible audience two accounts of the English colonization of America. Focusing on the first colonies in the south (Virginia) and north (Massachusetts and the rest of New England) respectively, he sets up a contrast between the two halves of the American colonial coast which provides background for the subsequent development of the American character. The nature of the Virginian settlements he judges entirely economic, ending his discussion of these with a withering condemnation of “the greed of seventeenth-century Englishmen” (Brogan, 29). By contrast, he presents the original motives for migration to New England as largely religious. Common knowledge of the eventual outcome of struggles between north and south make the implications of his comparison evident: the ideal of the hardworking, honest , earnest American of generations to come would be rooted not in the southern pseudo-aristocracy, but in the values of the Puritan north.

Having taken John Smith – the intelligent, highly motivated leader of the Virginians – as the model for the settlers of the American south, Brogan moves to the figure of John Winthrop when he considers the founding ethos of New England. Pious, idealistic, reasonable, and full of integrity, Winthrop seems by Brogan's account to be almost too good to be true. One might argue that the “unreal” quality of this founder's virtue is exactly what Brogan intends to emphasize. No sooner does he finish lauding Winthrop's legacy to America than he begins to cast doubt on the permanence of that legacy. The resulting shift to an account of the erosion of the “City on a Hill” ideal is hardly subtle. The decline of religious sentiment into economic sense is chronicled in detail. “Fishing proved almost as lucrative as John Smith had forseen” the author comments, hinting wryly at a fundamental connection between two cultures which had at first appeared nearly as polar opposites (Brogan, 47). The outline of Winthrop's (and his associates') futile efforts to correct the secularization of Puritan society ends with the bland statement: “the saga was over” (Brogan, 49).

So soon? Brogan is careful to classify Winthrop's mark on America as “indelible” (Brogan 43). Yet he proceeds to focus on New England's alleged disintegration into a materialistic society all too similar in some respects to its southern neighbors. One perceives that behind Brogan's determination to convince readers of his belief in the persistence of the “sober, respectable, self-reliant, energetic” spirit of the Puritans is an obsessive tendency to state things in the past tense. The “American character” he applauds at the end of this chapter “was” admirable when “the course of American history” was still in progress – when American culture had yet to fully descend to pure materialism, he hints (50). The saga of settlement had its heroes in the fathers of New England, but for Brogan, it seems, this saga is over and its heroes' strengths no more than a memory.


Anonymous said...

Hey, Tess, I've never read this history; but, remember, that it is just "his overview of American history," as you stated. That he juxtaposes and compares and contrasts the two regions, reducing the
differences to mainly religious versus economic, is not without some foundation. He is not breaking new ground here. And the religious foundations of New England's Puritan and Calvinist settlers did eventually give way to the economics of the world; for the activity of economics (like war) is much more interesting and variable, lending itself more to documentation and record-keeping than the interior activities of the "religious" settlers.

Sure Brogan would "cast doubt on the permanence of that legacy." You see, he had the luxury of time and distance to observe that the permanence of those religious foundations did indeed fade. Wasn't he just making an observation?

Also, don't be so sensitive as to think that he presents his accounts to "a presumably gullible audience." Oftentimes, one has to simplify reality in order to try to make sense of it. Now, if his analysis is wrong, then that's another matter...


Therese said...

I'm not disagreeing with that juxtaposition. Up to a certain point, I think he's right. But if you read it, it's not as innocuous as it might seem. It's blatantly Marxist and grows more so as the work progresses. Basically he centers his entire work around some fundamentally false assumptions about what has driven all of Western Civilization since the Protestant Reformation (though some of his individual points are valid).

Yes, the religious foundations have faded, but my point is not that they didn't, but simply that in portraying them as having faded, he uses language in such a way as to hint that America is in fact over.

The book was written during the Cold War and ends with a very bitter condemnation of American hypocrisy and a rather triumphant prediction of the country's fall. Now there's a slightly embarrassed appendix titled "A World Reborn?".

I do really think that he's assuming that his audience will be accepting enough to swallow the underlying falsity of his arguments as long as he phrases them in convincing terms.

In class we're in the midst of criticizing the text as an example of the way one shouldn't approach history, so my view may be more critical than it would otherwise be. But there is an undercurrent of a very snide attitude towards the Americans that annoyed me anyway, though I'm usually one of the first in our family to criticize the British settlers.