Wednesday, August 17, 2016

King's Survey: A Story Where Nothing Happens

In which we experience the rhythms of ordinary life in an ordinary time—the life and time, no matter where or when it is, that most of us inhabit.

So here I am getting ready to talk with you about the coming of the American Revolution, and I find myself looking at Ethan.
—Hey, Mr. K.
Greetings, Ethan. You’ll note that Ethan looks reasonably alert compared to Chris—or what appears to be Chris, if that’s Chris’s mane on a desk at this ungodly hour of 8:30 a.m. Ah, Chris, nice of you to join us. Ethan, I see you’re wearing a vintage Rage Against the Machine t-shirt.
It was my dad’s.
A fact which reinforces the point I was about to make. Ethan is wearing his dad’s Rage Against the Machine t-shirt. Which is to say that we have here a kid who’s wearing an emblem of rebellion from an earlier generation. The fact that he’s wearing his father’s couture amounts to an act of filial piety.
—What’s couture?
Clothing, Jonah.
—And what’s filial piety?”
Honoring your elders, Emily. Do you do that?
Ummm … Sort of.
Sort of?
—I mean, I try.
Now, now, dear Em. My point is that the Founding Fathers would be probably be scratching their heads to see Ethan wearing a Rage shirt—what could possibly anger one about a mechanical device? —though perhaps Thomas Jefferson would get it, given his ambivalence about role of machines in American life and his enthusiasm for rebellion everywhere (except among his slaves). “The tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of tyrants,” he famously said at the time of the French Revolution. So I don’t think he’d mind some Rage. Though I suspect he’d be disappointed that Ethan couldn’t be more original.
—Well, I have a Kendrick Lamar T-shirt too. Would that work?
I dunno. Doubtful. But that’s OK. We can’t all be as bloodthirsty as Thomas Jefferson.
 —You’re kidding, right?
 Well, no, Yin. But I am digressing. Let me get back on track. What I want you do now is imagine yourselves, dear students, not as happy residents of the 21st century but instead as a people who were born somewhere in one of the thirteen original British colonies in 1760. (Among other things, this birthdate will make you the age you are now when our friend Jefferson makes his famous Declaration.)
—Just like the Magic School Bus.
Right. But while those time-travel books drop you right into the middle of a dramatic situation just before it happens, I’m hoping to land us into a moment in which nothing particular is happening. You might find yourself in any number of circumstances, but I don’t think there’s any really big event that takes place in the colonies in 1760. Technically, there’s a war on—there have been wars between England and France going on almost continually for the last 70 years—but the hugely important Battle of Quebec has just been fought. Now it’s all over but the shouting; the British defeated the French in that battle, and then went on to take Montreal in this year of your imagined birth. Both cities, I’ll point out, are in Canada. And you’re not. So we’re going to say this action is far away. (Pretty much everything is far away at this point; roads are poor when they exist at all. Trips you now make in hours now were measured in weeks.) Besides, you’re a baby. Maybe you’ve got an uncle or something off fighting. But right now you’re on the far rim of the European world, almost surely living on a farm. That farm might be isolated, or it might be in a village. There’s a slim chance you’re living in a city. But you are, literally and figuratively, provincial, living on the edge of a global empire that sprawls across North America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
By the time you’re born in this Year of Our Lord 1760, there have been English settlers on the Atlantic seaboard for over 150 years, and forced African migrants for about as long. So your family might well have been here for many generations already. They might be more recent arrivals, too, whether from one of those places or perhaps part of a new wave of migration Scotland. Or from that region of Europe we know as Germany. In any event, you get my point: what some have been calling “the New World” is kinda old already. A civilization that rests, as all civilizations do, on the exploitation and displacement of the weak, has been established. But it’s fragile; how fragile depends on the precise location—North has more critical mass than South; East is more secure than West—but the whole span of the rim is solidifying.
The rhythms of everyday life on this perimeter haven’t changed in 1760. Indeed, in some important respects, they haven’t changed in thousands of years. You’re up at first light; your workday ends at sunset. Depending how rich your family is, you might have money to burn in the form of candles, but virtually no one is reckless about that. Your home, even if you’re rich, is likely to be quite small—tiny by 21st century standards. Men, women and children will huddle together in rooms and beds, as much for warmth as for a lack of space. Work, no matter what it is, will involve significant amounts of drudgery. Most of it will be manual labor, and most of that will involve farming: plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting. Milking, shepherding, shearing. Household tasks like churning, baking, and washing. Even cushy professions like the law will involve lots of routine tasks like copying letters contracts, and other documents—there are no Xerox machines— though if you’re successful you’ll have someone to do some of that stuff for you. Then, as before and later, the key indicator of wealth is the degree to which you have someone else to do your work, from housecleaning to executing trades.
What varies are the tiers, and kinds of tiers, between the bottom and the top. In between the ranks of free and slaves is a stratum of indentured servants. Essentially, their labor has been sold (maybe by their parents; maybe to pass the cost of their travel to America) for a fixed number of years, typically seven. Indentured servants learn a trade from a master, after which they are free to become journeymen, and, hopefully, masters themselves. Women perform work and develop skills that ideally will allow them, after their indenture ends, to marry, start families and become mistresses of households. Social mobility is real but finite for white people, and a handful of black ones, though this has declined as the line between slave and free hardened.  
No matter who you are, the pace of life is slow. Travel, as I already mentioned, is time-consuming and often unpleasant if not dangerous. News will routinely take months to cross the ocean—and traveling on water is generally faster than traveling on land. Routine transactions like buying and selling will be constrained by the lack of banks, paper money and trust: most trade will take the form of barter, and will involve people you know. Though you’re aware of a wider world, you live in a very small one.
—Sounds boring.
Well, you don’t know any alternative, so you’re not likely to be unhappy about it. In any case, boredom is less of a problem than fear. There’s any number of things to be afraid of, beginning with disease. Indian raids are always a possibility. And the weather is a source of chronic anxiety. There are the destructive storms, of course. But as often as not it’s seemingly routine weather patterns that pose a threat: Too much rain? Too little? Too hot? Too cold? Your family fortunes rest on conditions for which there is nothing in the way of reliable forecasts, and over which you have no control.
—What do people do for fun?
Well, any number of things. But the important thing to keep in mind is that there’s not nearly as much time for fun as there is now. Which, again, is not something you’re likely to notice. There are a few people—the planters on the great estates—who like to think of themselves as men of leisure. But they often have to work harder than they’re willing to admit to maintain what they have, and their wives have often have responsibilities, too. There are no expectations of very young children (rich or poor, slave or free), who often mingle, but before long everyone must take their place, a term that was understood literally as well as figuratively, whether that place was in the fields or with one’s tutors.
But to answer your questions, there are any number of pastimes. Some involve horses for those who have them. Card games. Of course, there’s always sex. Then, as now —maybe more then than now—it’s the default free-time activity. And that includes people your age, though with barriers to prevent actual intercourse. For instance, there’s the practice of bundling, where boys and girls are allowed to sleep together if they remain wrapped in separate blankets. Such forms of socializing follow events like barn-raisings, where the people in a town would pitch in to help each other with big projects they can’t manage on their own. Parties often follow, where there’s lots of alcohol; beer and cider are staples, along with whiskey. People at this time drink like fish—an average of over seven gallons annually for every man woman and child, in part because alcohol, since it’s sterile, is safer than water, where countless microbes lurk.
—But weren’t they Puritans? All uptight and stuff?
Well, Emily, some of them were Puritans. Descendants of the Puritans, anyway. But the Puritans weren’t really prudes in that way when it came to drinking or certain kinds of sex. That said, you had to be careful: the expectation was that if a girl got pregnant, there were great pressures for the boy to marry her. By 1760, this was as much for economic as moral reasons in a given community: raising that kid is your job; don’t make us bear the cost of feeding your brat. On the other hand, if you’re a slave, your child is a slave, too. So slave owners had a real financial incentive for people to have sex, which they encouraged. And in some cases forced. Sex was a popular pastime, but it had its dangers too, whether as a matter of rape or a high mortality rate for pregnant women and newborns. The colonial woman gave birth an average of seven times in her life. She typically spent most of her adulthood pregnant or nursing.
Oh my god.
Funny you should mention him, Em. Because that’s where we’re going tomorrow: to church.
Next: God and taxes