Journal of Southern Religion
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 Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xl, 451 pp.

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       Rhys Isaac's Pulitzer Prize-winning study of cultural change in eighteenth-century Virginia has become a landmark of cultural history since it first appeared seventeen years ago. Isaac's imaginative blend of history and symbolic anthropology, coupled with his compelling account of Virginia's complementary political and cultural revolutions, has extended The Transformation of Virginia's influence beyond history into the fields of anthropology, religion, politics, the law, and social psychology. The book has inspired many subsequent historians to incorporate ethnography into their methods of inquiry, contributing to a proliferation of sophisticated new scholarship in cultural history. Isaac celebrates this flourishing diversity of "ethnographic everybody's history" in the new preface to this reissued paperback edition of his masterpiece, while lamenting that the new cultural history's "multiplicity of would-be paradigms" has left the field "in a state of confusing fragmentation." Isaac expresses confidence that the "force and clarity" of his path-breaking venture into ethnographic history assures the book "a continuing role in the furtherance of gender- and race-inclusive history" (xxvi). Yet insofar as that confidence rests on the hope of bringing order out of current paradigmatic chaos, it may well have been betrayed by Isaac's decision to leave the limitations of his method and analysis unaddressed by revision.
       Isaac's account of Virginia's historical transformation will be familiar to many readers and needs only a brief summary here. He begins his story in

"...Isaac's treatment of causality in Virginia history remains The Transformation of Virginia's central weakness, one which stems both from his focus on dramaturgy as the interpretive key to history and from his implicitly progressive narrative framework."

1740 with a rich description of how Virginia gentry inscribed their dominance on the landscape through stately English-designed great houses, imposing county courthouses, and elegant parish churches. They reinforced their place in the social hierarchy through rituals of power and submission that permeated county life from court day festivities to convivial gatherings in taverns and gentry homes. Yet they secured that social world only to face the militant challenge of Presbyterians, Baptists, and eventually Methodists whose "evangelical counterculture" (p. 164) threatened to wrest popular affection from the gentry and introduce a radical egalitarianism into Virginia social life. Indeed, evangelicals seemed to lay the axe at the very root of Virginia's social tree by the antislavery preaching of some extreme leaders and the subversive practice of admitting black slaves into full church fellowship. Baptist itinerants transformed sites of gentry hegemony into theaters of intense cultural conflict. At the height of this contest, the patriot movement broke out, threatening to engulf the gentry in a wave of popular tumult. Paradoxically, however, popular resistance to British measures offered desperate gentry spokesmen the opportunity to salvage their status by throwing themselves into the cause, a "defensive response to the open rejection of deference that was increasingly manifested in the spread of evangelicalism" (265). This move exacted its price in the erosion of Virginia's hierarchical society and the incursion of a new ethos of voluntarism and privatism. Even slaves increasingly embraced new evangelical forms as the core of their communal life.
       In his preface, Isaac observes that "there have not been great controversies among early Americanists over my ethnographic interpretation of the American Revolution" (xxx). His narrative is largely confirmed, in his view, by the "odd combination of obvious and idiosyncratic" new works he cites as having the potential to influence his book were he to write it today--studies ranging from Dell Upton's architectural history Holy Things and Profane to Inga Clendinnen's dramaturgic study Aztecs to Philip Morgan's investigations of colonial slavery, which recently culminated in the publication of Slave Counterpoint.
       Largely absent from Isaac's list of new histories, however, are the many innovative studies of early American religious life that have appeared since 1982, the bulk of which tend to confirm persistent criticisms of Isaac's interpretation and methodology. Many of the book's original reviewers questioned the decisiveness of the Baptist challenge. They noted the deep and genuine commitment of many gentry to the patriot cause, while pointing out that pre-Revolutionary Baptists never exceeded ten percent of the population and were most active far from the centers of patriot activism. Recent studies of Southern religious life add force to this critique, generally confirming Christine Leigh Heyrman's findings in Southern Cross that Virginians and other Southerners of every social group resolutely resisted the small cadre of evangelical radicals well into the nineteenth century. Southern stubbornness eventually forced the evangelicals to accommodate to Southern culture to win converts, including adopting restrictions on the interracial practices which had never sat comfortably with members of the ruling race.
       In fact, Isaac's treatment of causality in Virginia history remains The Transformation of Virginia's central weakness, one which stems both from his focus on dramaturgy as the interpretive key to history and from his implicitly progressive narrative framework. Isaac shapes his analysis of Virginia's "social theater" into a narrative wherein a monolithic traditional gentry culture of hierarchy and subordination had to defend itself against an equally monolithic culture of proto-democratic egalitarianism, in the end acquiescing to a post-Revolutionary world more recognizably modern than that of 1740. The gentry's own part in bringing that world about--observable in behaviors such as participation in transatlantic print culture, construction of houses with hallways and private rooms, immersion in eighteenth-century consumer culture--fits poorly into this interpretive scheme. Indeed, while Isaac's eye is trained upon the dramaturgical performances that yield such elegant thick descriptions of Virginia's social life and customs, the deepest causes of Virginia's cultural transformation--the transatlantic economic and social changes periodically visible in the background of his analysis--seem to escape his notice. His focus on the oppositions between gentry and evangelical cultures also blinds Isaac to the economic and social interests which united most white Virginians in support of slavery.
       The Transformation of Virginia remains an imaginatively conceived and elegantly written "monument to a moment" when early American history and symbolic anthropology first met (xxv). Yet in its tendency to exaggerate cultural polarization, Isaac's particular brand of "ethnographic everybody's history" ultimately seems more suited to perpetuating than mending the historiographical fragmentation he so laments. It also leaves him poorly equipped to explain the limitations of a transformation that left many elite planter families at the top of Virginia society and kept evangelical slaves in their quarters until the Civil War.

Timothy D. Hall, Central Michigan University

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