Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer
Albion’s Seed is a very seductive book. Fischer is a great and forceful writer and his book is very powerfully structured. Albion’s Seed is almost a feedback loop, each piece of evidence is perfectly selected to, at first glance, invite no challenge to Fischer’s thesis. But if you take a few mental steps back, you begin to notice some serious problems with Fischer’s evidence and argument.
The two largest problems with this book are temporal and geographic. When he is being careful Fischer clearly states that his folkways only cover certain migrations and geographic areas (such as Virginia between 1642-75). However, when he gets around to presenting his evidence his focus steadily begins to spread. Often times his evidential base will subtly expand. His evidence for this or that will not come from Virginia but from Maryland or North Carolina and his evidence for Massachusetts. The shifts are so well hidden in Fischers convincing prose that you wouldn’t notice them if you weren’t looking carefully. But they deeply undermine his thesis. Take the constant evoking of Maryland and the rest of the Chesapeake for Fisher’s evidence of Virginia’s cavalier heritage. While I would be first to admit that Virginia shares many common features (and many differences) from the rest of the Chesapeake, such an insight actually undermines Fischer’s whole argument about Virginia. For he is arguing the that heroic agency of William Berkeley and his class of royalist plants completely shaped Virginia’s culture. However, Berkeley had no power and authority – as governor of Virginia – in Maryland or North Carolina.
Fischer also stretches his evidential base chronically. One is wonders how much evidence from the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries really shows the Britishness of early Puritans or Virginians. Particularly when some of that evidence includes Fischer’s childhood reminisces of Maryland and uncritical quotes from Harriet Beecher Stowe novels. Sometimes it seems that the only organizational connection between all of Fischer’s evidence is that it proves his point. There are other problems with the book as well, such as that Fischer doesn’t take class, race, or slavery seriously enough.
Albion’s Seed is a powerfully frustrating book. Any insights it provides are underwhelmed by it extreme sloppiness. It is a true disappointment from such a respected historian.