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«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»

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As I discuss at greater length below, the use of the term culture in the analysis of the period of European expansion in the colonial Americas is highly problematic. The primary reason is the vagueness of its now predominant definition, which is exacerbated by the wide range of uses to which it is put. As Raymond Williams states in his Keywords, “[c]ulture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (87); it is a complicated and loaded term in French as well, as the work of Michel de Certeau, among others, has shown us.3 While Williams’ and de Certeau’s work has done a great deal to excavate possibilities for making good use of the concept of culture, it is all too easy to fall into a loose and uncritical use of the term, naming this and that culture in a fashion that presupposes coherent totalities (of people, of historical periods, of literary texts, of social practices, of religious rites, and so on) where such See de Certeau’s La culture au pluriel, translated as Culture in the Plural, and L'invention du quotidien, translated as The Practice of Everyday Life.

coherence may not in fact exist. Used in this fashion, culture becomes a synonym for identity: one speaks, for example, of “Puritan culture” and “American culture” rather than “Puritan identity” and “American identity.” This rhetorical move obscures the complex discursive processes at work in the transformations of the concept of identity in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.

Because of the great influence of Clifford Geertz’s Interpretation of Cultures, however, the word is omnipresent not only in early American literary studies, but in the transatlantic scholarship of New Historicist critics as well—indeed, with the rise and spread of the interdiscipline of cultural studies, we might well say that the word is omnipresent throughout the humanities and social sciences.4 But if culture is everywhere, what are we to put in its place? And how are we supposed to study the formation of collective identities without it?

To answer these questions I turn, below, to the writings of Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon, where we find the concept of custom elaborated with a precision and theoretical complexity suited to the task of thinking through the processes of identity formation. As Zsolt Almasí, whose Problematics of Custom is the only book-length study to date of the concept of custom in the work of Montaigne and Bacon (as well as in To gain a sense of Geertz’s pervasive impact, we might note that, as of June 11, 2007, there were over 6,000 citations of Interpretation of Culture in the ISI Web of Knowledge citations index. These citations occur in journals treating virtually every field in the social sciences and humanities; the 100 publications in which Geertz’s essay collection is most frequently cited include PMLA, College English, New Literary History, and Daedalus. One could also point to the influence of German scholars from Johann Gottfried von Herder to Norbert Elias (and English adaptors such as E. B. Tylor and Matthew Arnold) whose work on the concept of kultur has had a clear influence not only on Geertz himself, but on many New Historicists and cultural materialists.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the John Wilkinson’s Elizabethan translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics), suggests, it would “be misleading to try to provide a definition that could include all of the ideas meant by the use of the word” (5). This danger notwithstanding, I believe it possible to usefully define a custom as a corporeal human practice that has taken on a habitual or traditional character through its repetition.

Nonetheless, in the early modern world this word and its variants have a broad range of applications: there is religious custom, customary law, and “the custom of the country”;

there are customs-houses, customers, and costumes.

What underpins all these particular usages for Montaigne and Bacon is the power of custom to transform an individual practice into both a mark of collective identity and a potential source of social strife. Custom, for them, is not simply a visible manifestation of a collective identity, but its motive force. Because of custom’s transformative power, these authors align custom with what is most natural to humankind and, simultaneously, what is most novel and corrupt. Thus, the figure of custom bridges discursive oppositions—nature/artifice, for example, or beginning/end—in which culture, in our modern sense, often falls strictly to one side.

That custom can bridge these oppositions is indicative of the upheavals of Montaigne and Bacon’s own time—the rise of vernacular languages, the spread of the printing press, the Reformation and the religious wars, and the exploration and colonization of the New World. Colonization in particular, with the concerns it raises about maintaining national and religious identities in different lands, is central to both authors’ writing on custom.

Montaigne’s understanding of custom emerges from the intersection of his meditation on the “savages” of the New World and the savagery of the religious wars in France;

Bacon’s from the English experience in Ireland and Virginia, from the Spanish experience in South and Central America, and from his project to establish a new, empirical science, which he figures as analogous to the discovery of the Americas (see, for example, New Organon 91). Montaigne and Bacon share a conception of custom as a process whereby novelty becomes convention, the particular becomes general, and the material


through sheer, and often unthinking, repetition. Further, because of custom’s ability to take on a life of its own, Montaigne and Bacon agree that it is not a benign phenomenon, but rather an active and dangerous force that must be contained and controlled to the benefit of society at large.

As I demonstrate in the course of this project, Bacon’s and Montaigne’s understanding of custom opened up a new discourse of group identity that finds its most developed expression in the writings of the French and English men and women who first colonized North America, and that paved the way for a radical reconceptualization of collective identities before the writings of the “American” authors Cotton Mather and JosephFrançois Lafitau refined the meaning of custom to the brink of irrelevance early in the eighteenth century.

I am not the only critic to have suggested a similar trajectory. Mary Baine Campbell, in her Wonder and Science, offers us “a single story [that] begins in a jumbled, shocking, and marvelous diversity [and] ends in an Enlightenment serenity of system, bolstered by imperial growth, inspired by the imperial ideal of universalism, but still marbleized with trouble by the shocks of passage” (221). And Nicholas Hudson, in his essay, “From ‘Nation’ to ‘Race,’” tracks “the changing meaning of the term ‘race,’ along with the associated terms ‘nation’ and ‘tribe’” finding a shift from the “wealth of detailed descriptions of innumerable ‘nations’” in the seventeenth century to “the use of the term ‘race’ to describe ever larger populations” over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (248). What both Campbell and Hudson notice, then, is a gradual shift from the writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which highlight the diversity of peoples, and those of the eighteenth century, which group peoples into ever larger categories until the notion of continentally delimited “races” emerges only to be further defined in terms of genetic inheritance by the turn of the nineteenth century.

While my own argument clearly intersects with those of Campbell and Hudson at various points—most particularly in the last chapter, where I consider the disciplinary division between history and ethnology, one of the key steps in this shift from “nation” to “race”—my focus is rather narrower than theirs because I regard the changes in European conceptions of communal identities (such as nations and races) as being most strongly influenced by the colonization of North America.

The starting point of my project is the recognition of several basic traits shared by all of the Western colonial powers: that they sought to establish colonies in the Americas, that they encountered native inhabitants when they did so, that this encounter placed the colonists in an intermediate position that was deemed to be a threat to their continued identity with their metropolitan peers, and that they produced writings (both published and unpublished) to rhetorically counter this supposed threat in order to justify their continued presence in the Americas. To say this may seem to equate early American literary studies with postcolonial studies—and certainly much of the recent work in the field that I find most compelling draws on the insights of postcolonial theorists from Mary Louise Pratt to Homi Bhabha—but these particular colonies (and thus these literatures) retain a shared specificity because of their geography and the time period in which they were produced.

My decision to focus more narrowly on the North American colonies of New England and New France begins with the recognition that both England and France established permanent mainland colonies at virtually the same time (1607 and 1606, respectively) and, further, that they shared not only a timeframe for colonization, but also a mindset.

From my perspective as a comparative literary critic analyzing the way the colonists wrote about their identities, the deeply intertwined intellectual and political environments of England and France in this period are perhaps the most significant justification of my focus. As my final chapter makes explicit in a way not immediately possible in the others, all of the authors I consider belong to a larger, transnational intellectual community that included most of Western Europe in its bounds, a burgeoning république des lettres as it would be identified in one of the early learned periodicals that helped to cement this transnational intellectual identity.5 Within this broader community the relationship between England and France was perhaps the most developed—and certainly the most charged—of any two nations.

For an indication of how much Anglo-America in particular would take part in this transnational republic, see Norman Fiering’s “The Transatlantic Republic of Letters: A Note on the Circulation of Learned Periodicals to Eighteenth-Century America.” Witness, for example, the large Huguenot population living in exile in London around the turn of the seventeenth century. Among this group we find a number of individuals responsible for bringing knowledge of French exploration in the Americas to the attention of an English audience: Pierre Erondelle, for example, with his 1609 translation of part of Marc Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, or Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, whose sketches from a voyage to Brazil were added to John White’s of Virginia for publication in the multilingual De Bry edition of Thomas Harriot’s Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. To this traffic in letters across the English Channel must be added the famous 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essais by John Florio, a Protestant of Italian descent. In the other direction, we might cite the strong influence of English scientific thought in France, beginning with the works of Bacon and continuing through those of Newton and Locke. English connections in France became particularly strong during the Civil War and the Interregnum, with Hobbes, to name only one exile among many, living in Paris and making the acquaintance of René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, and other important French thinkers.

Given the increasing contiguity of their colonies in the Americas, and as control of Acadia and Newfoundland, in particular, was traded back and forth (though the English also briefly took control of Québec in 1632), there was also an increasing mutual awareness in the colonies themselves as to each other’s presence, and even the development of certain shared trading interests, most particularly in the borderlands of Maine and Acadia, where the English had taken administrative control of a primarily French-speaking population. By the time Cotton Mather was writing at the close of the seventeenth century, there was also a Huguenot exile community (driven out by the revocation of the Édit de Nantes in 1685) living in Boston, and others in the mid-Atlantic colonies of Virginia and Maryland.

By focusing, then, on these two colonies over this period of time, I am able to demonstrate a shared set of concerns about collective identity and a shared range of discursive responses to those concerns that undermine the notion of a distinct “American” (read US) identity that can trace its roots exclusively or primarily to Puritan New England. Further, by focusing on a period in which custom was simultaneously regarded as central to the formation of a coherent and potent collective identity and as subject to the force of innovation, I provide a cogent framework for a comparative understanding of these two colonies without recourse to the concept of culture or to a notion of continuity that extends to the era of national consolidation or to the present day.


Inevitably, when a fellow Americanist discovers that I am working on the subject of custom in seventeenth-century North America, they ask me whether I have read Philip Round’s book, By Nature and By Custom Cursed. The answer, of course, is that I have, and that it has been extremely useful in helping me refine my project—though not in the way one might imagine. While his detailed attention to the dynamics of Puritan “civil conversation” in the seventeenth century casts a good deal of light on how the colonists used printed texts and correspondence as a vehicle for authorizing their (ongoing) presence in New England to their counterparts back in England, Round never really digs in to the concept or figure of custom itself, as his brief explication of his title phrase— taken from Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplations”—reveals.

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