Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History/Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007

By Kneebone, John T. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History/Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007


Kneebone, John T., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History * Peter Wallenstein * Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007 * xviii, 476 pp. * $29.95.

Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007 * Ronald L. Heinemann, John G. KoIp, Anthony S. Parent, Jr., and William G. Shade * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007 * xiv, 398 pp. * $29.95.

These welcome narrative histories of Virginia are occasioned by the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown, and they will serve as useful legacies of it. More important, time and new scholarship have outdated Virginius Dabney's Virginia: The New Dominion (1971), the most recent narrative with comparable ambitions. Teachers, students, and history buffs yearned for an upto-date Virginia history, and suddenly we have two of them. Which to read? Each has virtues, but they differ enough that choosing just one and not the other is difficult.

Both books are collaborative efforts. The four distinguished authors of Old Dominion, New Commonwealth (ODNC) narrate a century apiece. Parent covers the seventeenth century, Kolp the eighteenth, Shade the nineteenth century to the Civil War, and Heinemann handles the rest of the story. Heinemann, with assistance from KoIp, editorially scrutinized the text so that it reads almost seamlessly.

Although Wallenstein's name alone appropriately appears on the title page of his book, it was also a joint project, and includes the work of undergraduate students at Virginia Tech, where he has long taught. He invited colleagues to contribute as well. Wallenstein "massaged" their materials, and his voice is "much the dominant one," but the book eschews the single authoritative voice of ODNC to adopt a variety of tones, and it enhances the narrative with vignettes and biographical sketches (p. 444). For example, the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe receives in ODNC a soundly argued but straightforward analysis of their likely feelings and the strategic meaning of the union (pp. 27-28). Cradle of America folds the marriage into Rolfe's experiments with growing Caribbean tobacco and finds symbolic meanings in both that embrace "the North Atlantic world" and the dream that the Powhatans and the English "might live peacefully together" (p. 20).

Despite the editorial consensus in ODNC, four authors and 400 years of history make for some analytical inconsistencies. The chapter on the "planter's patriarchy" in the eighteenth century closes with a description of challenges from the planters' wives, children, and slaves that pointed toward a "paternalistic way of governing" (p. 89). Yet, the chapter on the Virginia Dynasty employs the term of patriarchy well into the nineteenth century. Then the organizing principle for the next chapter, on "Democratizing the Old Dominion," is political conflict between "the traditional center and the reform-minded periphery," resulting in a "liberal democratic political culture" at mid-century (pp. 173, 189). These are powerful explanatory concepts, with a historiography behind each of them, but the terms appear, disappear, and sometimes reappear, as does "a new patriarchal order" in the mid-1880s (p. 260). Indeed, might not conflict between "the traditional center and the reform-minded periphery" serve to conceptualize the disaster of massive resistance to school desegregation in the mid-twentieth century?

Wallenstein states that he stands consciously in Blacksburg, in western Virginia, and his discussion of the antebellum conflicts sets east against west, a regional division that mirrors the center-periphery approach of ODNC. …

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