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The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (Early American Studies)
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008
280 pp., $39.95
Lauren F. Winner
Can You Go Home Again?
Like everyone else who has written about colonial Virginia, I am guilty of what John Fea describes as using Philip Vickers Fithian's journal as "window dressing for … studies of the plantation Chesapeake." In 1773 and 1774, Fithian served as a tutor on one of the great Tidewater plantations, and the journal he kept that year has provided historians with insightful and charming anecdotes about the religious and social lives of Virginia's élite.
But if his account of Virginia is the most widely read (and plundered) of Fithian's journals, it was certainly not the only diary he kept. In 1766, he began two records: a journal devoted principally to assessing the state of his soul, and a journal in which he recorded the daily round of labor on his father's farm. From then on, Fithian was never far from pen and paper. He was an astute diarist, and a faithful letter-writer, and the paper trail he left is the basis for Fea's wonderful study of Fithian's conversion, education, and coming of age.
Fithian was born in 1747 in a rural and intensely Presbyterian pocket of southwest New Jersey called Cohansey. He grew up in the church, and he experienced a powerful conversion in 1766. Always a lover of ideas and reading, after his conversion Fithian sensed a call to ministry, and knew that he needed more formal education. Convincing his father that this was a good idea took some work: Fithian argued that an education would be a means of self-improvement, through which he would become more virtuous and refined. In turn, an educated Fithian could contribute to the betterment of society as a whole. Fithian's father finally relented, and Fithian enrolled first in a local academy run by Presbyterian cleric Enoch Green and then in the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).
In this absorbing and elegantly written biography, John Fea explores the conflict between Fithian's deep connections to Cohansey and the Enlightenment principles of cosmopolitanism he learned in school. How did ...