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The Barbarous Years

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard Bailyn's book on the early settling of America is authoritative as well as entertaining.

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Bailyn elegantly draws into a big picture the kaleidoscopic swarm of individuals and communities from what is now Virginia up into Atlantic Canada – this is a story, after all, about those who came to populate these places along with its natives: adventurers, soldiers of fortune, the commercially daring; then indentured servants or those impressed from a London street for being poor or young when a trading company needed bodies; and those who came with a measure of grandeur, with family and servants, only to find the rudest of circumstances. What was the lay and geography of the early settlements? Jamestown was not just Jamestown but Lawne's Plantation and Bennett's Welcome, Archer's Hope and Jordan's Journey, and Bailyn gives readers a taste of what it was like to walk out your door in, say, Flowerdieu's Hundreds in 1624. What were the vicissitudes of Plymouth and its nearby City on the Hill? How did the tobacco economy work? What was it like to live in the crazy farrago of the New Netherlands, with its babel of northern Europeans? When and how was slavery introduced and sanctioned?
Not to forget the Protestant-versus-Catholic mayhem and the bite of early class warfare, as in Maryland: "The turmoil was in part the result of personal animosities among adventurers freed from normal social constraints... But it was also, and in large part, an expression of the resistance of the ordinary Protestant planters to the colony's Catholic establishment and to the manorial system."
What Bailyn does so well is to not only explain all the action but to pull it into a coherency, a great panoptical dazzle: what motivated people's actions, how they conducted themselves and why, what prompted intrigues, why you couldn't throw a brick in Boston in the mid-seventeenth century without hitting an enraptured zealot or oppressed schismatic, let alone an Anabaptist or a Quaker.

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Gordon Wood, no slouch on the American Colonial historical landscape, has written that "Bernard Bailyn is one of America's most distinguished historians and a new book by him is always welcome." Grindingly understated, to the point of making your teeth sing. But Bailyn is now in his nineties, so let's hope that he eats the Russians' elixir yogurt or moves to that Greek island where no one dies. Another book from Bailyn would always be welcome.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City.

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